When a receptionist hands out a form to fill out at a doctor's office, the questions are usually about medical issues: What's the visit for? Are you allergic to anything? Up to date on vaccines?
But some health organizations are now asking much more general questions: Do you have trouble paying your bills? Do you feel safe at home? Do you have enough to eat? Research shows these factors can be as important to health as exercise habits or whether you get enough sleep.
Some doctors even think someone's ZIP code is as important to their health as their genetic code.
That's why Shannon McGrath was asked to fill in a "life situation form" this spring when she turned up for her first obstetrics appointment at Kaiser Permanente in Portland, Ore. She was 36 weeks pregnant.
"When I got pregnant, I was homeless," she says. "I didn't have a lot of structure. And so it was hard to make an appointment. I had struggles with child care for my other kids, transportation, financial struggles."
The form asked about her rent, her debts, her child care situation and other social factors. On the strength of her answers, Kaiser Permanente assigned her what is called a "patient navigator."
"She automatically set up my next few appointments and then set up the rides for them, because that was my No. 1 struggle," McGrath says. "She assured me that child care wouldn't be an issue and that it would be OK if they came. So I brought the kids and everything was easy, just like she said it would be."
McGrath's navigator helped her get in touch with local nonprofits that helped her with rent, a phone and essentials for the baby — such as diapers and bottles — all in the hope that making her life easier might keep her healthier and, in turn, keep Kaiser's medical costs lower.
McGrath says her patient navigator, Angelette Hamilton, was a bureaucratic ninja, removing paperwork obstacles that kept her from taking care of herself and her family.
Patient navigators have been around for a while. What is new is the form that McGrath filled out and how hospitals are using the socioeconomic and other data the forms glean to serve patients. The details now go into a patient's file, which means providers such as Dr. Sarah Lambert have more information at a glance.
"I find it incredibly helpful because it can be very hard to find out," says Lambert, who is McGrath's OB-GYN and works at Kaiser Permanente Northwest. "Having it coded right there — we have this problem list that jumps up — really can give you a much better understanding as to what the patient's going through."
Federal officials introduced new medical codes for the social determinants of health a few years ago, says Cara James, director of the Office of Minority Health at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
"More providers are beginning to recognize the impact that the social determinants have on their patients," she says.
Nicole Friedman, a regional manager at Kaiser Permanente Northwest, agrees. But she goes one step further.
She hopes giving doctors more information about the home life of each patient will push health care in a new direction — away from more high-priced treatments and toward providing the basics.
"My personal belief is that putting more money into health care is a moral sin," she says. "We need to take money out of health care and put it into other social inputs like housing and food and transportation."
Linking health organizations like Kaiser with nonprofit social services such as the Oregon Food Bank will help governments and medical providers see where their money can make the biggest difference, Friedman says.
For example, spending more on affordable housing for homeless people can also have health benefits, in turn saving the government money down the line.
Friedman says that when Kaiser started addressing people's social needs, one study found a 40 percent reduction in emergency room use.
McGrath was initially skeptical when doctors offered to help her with things like rent and transportation.
"I didn't want someone to see my situation and have it raise alarms," she says.
But ultimately she was glad to have shared that information.
"I'm able to look at life and not feel overwhelmed or burdened," she says, "or like I've got the whole world on my shoulders.
This story is part of NPR's reporting partnership with Oregon Public Broadcasting and Kaiser Health News, which is an independent journalism organization and not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
When a receptionist gives you a form to fill out in a doctor's office, the questions are usually about medical issues - family history of illness, allergies or the last time you got vaccines. Some doctors are now asking more general questions about jobs and where patients live. It's as if your ZIP code is as important as your genetic code. Kristian Foden-Vencil of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports.
KRISTIAN FODEN-VENCIL, BYLINE: Shannon McGrath was given a life situation form this spring when she turned up for her first OB-GYN appointment 36 weeks pregnant.
SHANNON MCGRATH: When I got pregnant, I was homeless. I didn't have a lot of structure. And so it was hard to make an appointment. I had struggles with child care for my other kids, transportation.
FODEN-VENCIL: The mother of four sits next to her new baby, Rayder. That's him snoring in the background. The form asked questions like, are you worried about your housing? Is it safe? Can you pay the rent? It asked about food, transportation and child care. On the strength of McGrath's answers, her doctor, who's part of Kaiser Permanente, assigned her a patient navigator.
MCGRATH: She automatically set up my next few appointments and then set up the rides for them because that was my No. 1 struggle. She assured me that the child care wouldn't be an issue and that it would be OK if they came. So I brought the kids, and everything was easy just like she said it would be.
FODEN-VENCIL: McGrath is on Oregon's version of Medicaid. Her navigator connected her with local nonprofits who helped her with rent and a phone. The hope is that making her life easier might keep her and her children healthier and lower Oregon's Medicaid costs. McGrath says her patient navigator was a bureaucratic ninja, slicing through all the paperwork. She says for a pregnant mother with three children and tenuous housing, it was just too daunting.
Patient navigators have been around for a while. What's new is the life situation form and, more importantly, having that information coded into a patient's permanent electronic medical record. Sarah Lambert is McGrath's gynecologist. She really appreciates seeing a patient's housing situation, debt or even their history of domestic abuse in the file.
SARAH LAMBERT: I find it incredibly helpful because it can be very hard to find out. And having it coded right there - we have this problem list that jumps up - really can give you a much better understanding as to what the patient is going through.
FODEN-VENCIL: Nicole Friedman with Kaiser Permanente agrees, and she goes a step further. She hopes these changes push health care away from more high-priced treatments and toward providing the basics.
NICOLE FRIEDMAN: My personal belief is that putting more money into health care is a moral sin and that we need to take money out of health care (laughter) and put it into other social inputs like housing and food and transportation.
FODEN-VENCIL: Back with baby Rayder, I asked Shannon McGrath whether she was surprised her doctor's office helped her with things like rent and transportation.
MCGRATH: A hundred percent - I was skeptical. I didn't want someone to see my situation and have it raise alarms.
FODEN-VENCIL: But she says she was pleased she opened up, as it made her more likely to seek help in the future.
MCGRATH: I'm able to look at life and not feel overwhelmed or burdened or like I've got the whole world on my shoulders.
FODEN-VENCIL: Of course the idea has raised concerns. Patients may worry about privacy. And providing transportation or even a home doesn't necessarily cure a person's ailment. For NPR News, I'm Kristian Foden-Vencil in Portland.
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CORNISH: This story's part of a reporting partnership with NPR, Oregon Public Broadcasting and Kaiser Health News.
(SOUNDBITE OF TEEBS' "WHY LIKE THIS?") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.