Addressing social determinants of health can improve lives, lower costs

Employees are struggling. Half of U.S. households had difficulty paying expenses in the previous month, according to a March survey by the U.S. Census Bureau. A quarter reported delaying medical care. And one-third reported symptoms of depression.

As an employer, those numbers should concern you, says Nebeyou Abebe, senior vice president of Social Determinants of Health (SDOH) for Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield.

“Social determinants not only impact your employees’ personal lives but also their job performance,” says Abebe. “Employees worried about feeding their children or paying for medical care are likely not operating at maximum capacity. Looking at the health of a population and the social factors that drive health allows you to address social barriers to health and well-being, improve health outcomes and lower costs.”

Smart Business spoke with Abebe about how to address SDOH to improve quality of life, increase engagement and productivity, and control costs.

How can addressing SDOH help improve outcomes and decrease costs?

While companies may think offering benefits is enough, many take a passive approach to promoting them. So while they are available, oftentimes employees are either not aware of them or not utilizing them. As a result, organizations have a tremendous opportunity to take a more employee-centric approach to identify the root factors that impact health.

Clinical factors account for only 20 percent of health care needs, while behaviors, physical environment and socioeconomic factors — where people live, their social support, access to health care, education and healthy food, financial distress, etc. — account for 80 percent. So you can’t just look at clinical factors; you have to look at life factors, as well.

How can a change in benefits strategy impact employee health?

Over the past several years, more organizations are rethinking their benefits strategies to address the needs of all employees, especially the social barriers that affect health and well-being. Employers need to understand what employees are struggling with and use that to inform strategy and shift their investment. By addressing factors that impact physical well-being, you can increase engagement and productivity, improve health outcomes and lower health care costs.

In the past, employers have focused on equality, with every employee having access to the same benefits for the same cost. To better meet employees’ needs, design a program with an equity perspective, in which all have access and benefits are affordable to all, with tiered premiums. Also, an employer can offer childcare subsidies or homebuying workshops, provide healthier alternatives in vending machines, subsidize public transportation or offer housing to employees at below-market rates.

How can an SDOH approach improve an organization?

An SDOH approach allows you to control costs and improve employees’ health by addressing the 80 percent of factors that impact health and well-being. It’s a wise investment and a way to help achieve your objectives and the return on investment in health and well-being programs. Look at the health of your population and the social factors that drive health to create a strategy to address social barriers to achieving it.

Your health benefits provider should be able to help leverage your data and identify vulnerability factors to gain a fuller picture of your population and meet employees where they are to help them access appropriate services and enhance their experience of health care to improve outcomes.

Health care costs are a national crisis, and the only way to control costs is to address these underlying factors. Employers are spending more each year on premiums and need to bend the cost curve by focusing on SDOH. It’s the right thing to do in terms of making a strategic investment in the health of employees and the broader community.

By engaging employees in good decision-making and changing the design of your benefits and your approach to employee well-being programs, you can help employees thrive and live better lives, enhancing productivity and lowering costs.

Insights Health Care is brought to you by Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield