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The Physicians Foundation today released part one of three of its 2022 Survey of America’s Physicians, which examines the current impact of social drivers of health (SDOH) on physician practice, physician wellbeing and their patients as well as possible solutions needed to address SDOH.

“Even before the pandemic, physicians knew that SDOH have a profound impact on not only the health of our patients, but on the cost of care and our ability to advance health equity,” said Gary Price, MD, president of The Physicians Foundation.   

“Nearly ninety percent of physicians indicated that they would like a greater ability to effectively address their patients’ SDOH in the future. To make this a reality, we need to institute change to lift the barriers that prevent physicians from addressing their patients’ SDOH and contribute to physician burnout and build broad-based understanding of the SDOH and their implications for patients and physicians.”

The State of Physicians’ Ability to Address SDOH 

Though physicians believe addressing patients’ SDOH is critical to improving patient health outcomes and lowering cost of care, six in 10 physicians (61%) feel they have little to no time and ability to effectively address their patients’ SDOH.

However, this isn’t for lack of trying or effort—physicians face many barriers when addressing SDOH. The majority of physicians indicated that their top challenges are limited time during patient visits (89%) and an insufficient workforce to navigate patients to community SDOH resources (84%).

While there are helpful resources that exist to help physicians and patients navigate SDOH, physicians still reported that the community resources are not available, inadequate or difficult to access (77%) and that there is inadequate information on how to access community resources (77%) which strongly contributes to these barriers.  

“Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no question that physicians and patients have all been impacted, some worse than others. Part of what drives the scale of that impact is SDOH,” said Robert Seligson, CEO of The Physicians Foundation. “The desire from physicians to properly address the SDOH is there. We need take the initiative to make changes, like screening patients to identify social needs and creating financial incentives to support physicians in addressing their patients’ unique needs.”

The Impact of Addressing SDOH on Physician Mental Health 

For many physicians, attempting to address SDOH without adequate resources contributes to a growing list of barriers to provide high-quality, cost-effective care to patients. In a pandemic where physicians are already experiencing high levels of burnout, six in 10 physicians (63%) report often having feelings of burnout when trying to address their patients’ SDOH. Additionally, six in 10 physicians (68%) believe managing patients’ SDOH has a major impact on physician mental health and wellbeing.

More than half of physicians report the following SDOH challenges cause them to experience stress or frustration on a daily or weekly basis:

  • 71% identified limited time during patient visit to discuss SDOH
  • 64% identified insufficient workforce to navigate patients to community resources to address SDOH
  • 63% identified existing payer reporting requirements taking time away from being able to address patients’ SDOH
  • 57% identified lack of reimbursement for screening for or addressing SDOH
  • 57% identified community resources unbailable, inadequate or difficult to access

“Eight in 10 physicians believe that challenges in addressing patients’ SDOH contributes to physician burnout rates, a rate that is already unsustainably high. It is imperative that physicians be equipped with the proper resources to address their patients’ needs, which we know are impacted by SDOH. As the data shows, when physicians cannot access resources to adequately address these challenges, it leaves room for feelings of hopelessness, stress and burnout,” noted Dr. Price.

The Future of Addressing SDOH 

When it comes down to it, eight in 10 physicians (80%) believe that the United States cannot improve health outcomes or reduce health care costs without addressing SDOH. This means physicians need strategies and structures in place to support their efforts to address patients’ SDOH. When asked, top strategies physicians identified as the most important to support themselves and other physicians in addressing patients’ SDOH were:

  • Investing in community capacity to address patients’ SDOH
  • Investing in the technological and human capacity to connect patients with community resources they need to be healthy
  • Screening patients to identify social needs
  • Significantly reducing existing payer reporting requirements and other administrative burdens to provide the necessary time to address SDOH
  • Creating financial incentives for physician-directed efforts to address SDOH
  • Including SDOH in risk scoring

These strategy priorities indicate that policy steps and measures need to be taken to help physicians address their patients’ needs. In fact, multiple policy steps were identified as important by at least eight in ten physicians to improve health outcomes and ensure high-quality, cost-efficient care for all, with the top three being reimbursing physician-directed efforts to address SDOH (86%), incentivizing payors to invest in availability and quality of community resources to address patients’ SDOH (84%) and providing greater flexibility for Medicare Advantage to reimburse for addressing SDOH (81%).

“It is no surprise that this data has revealed that the majority of physicians want more time and greater ability in the future to effectively address their patients’ SDOH. However, even with this desire many still feel they cannot adequately do this due to lack of available resources, time and capacity,” added Robert Seligson.

“In 2021, The Physicians Foundation submitted the first-ever SDOH measures to Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which are currently under consideration to be included in federal payment programs. If adopted, these measures might potentially impact reimbursements for physicians, as well as address SDOH in how our country pays for and delivers care to improve patient health.”

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