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Published: 06/7/2024

We ask because we care: How providers are helping beyond the health care office

CHARLES W. REDD | HEALTH TAKE-AWAY from the Berkshire Eagle June 7, 2024

Berkshire County is recognizing two important observances this June with Pride Month and Juneteenth.

It’s a fitting time to reflect on the steps that we, as a community, can take to make our region a healthier place for everyone, regardless of their race, gender, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, or any other characteristic that may be part of a person’s identity.

Research has shown that a person’s overall health and wellness are impacted by a combination of clinical care, personal health behaviors, social and economic factors, and physical environmental conditions.

In fact, the clinical care that is delivered in hospitals and doctor’s offices only contributes to about 20 percent of a person’s overall health outcomes. A closer look at the ways that the remaining 80 percent of nonclinical factors, also known as social determinants of health, impact a person’s overall health can reveal significant health disparities, or measurable differences in health and wellness between populations.

The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically highlighted many of these deeply rooted disparities in our systems. Nationwide data shows that historically marginalized populations face greater challenges caused by social, economic or environmental factors, like access to transportation, housing, healthy food, or safe communities. In turn, these conditions result in higher rates of chronic diseases, greater mental health issues, and overall poorer health outcomes in communities across the country — and right here in Berkshire County.

One of the ways that health care systems, both locally and nationally, are working to identify and reduce health disparities is by systematically asking patients screening questions about the social and environmental conditions that may affect their health and then connecting them to community resources outside of the health care environment.

If you’ve been to a primary care office in the past year, you may have noticed that you were asked to complete a new screening questionnaire. And if you have had questions about it, you’re not alone. You may have even wondered, “Why does my doctor need to know?” We hope the questions and answers below will help you to better understand in this important initiative and benefit the health of our whole community.

Q: Why am I being asked new questions by my health care team?

A: The short answer from health care providers is, “We ask because we care.” Your health care team wants you to have the best possible quality of life. But, because so much of a person’s health is impacted by things that happen outside of the health care office, your care team might not know the challenges that can stand between you and better health.

By sharing information with your care team on the questionnaire, your health care providers can make more informed decisions about how to help you feel your best. They can also connect you to resources outside of the doctor’s office that can help address social, economic, and environmental challenges you face. For example, if you don’t have a car to get to the pharmacy to pick up your new medication, they can help connect you to transportation services in the county.

Q: What kind of questions are we talking about?

A: You may be asked questions about your background, like where your family is from and what languages you speak. You will also be asked about things you might need help with, like getting good food to eat, transportation, or having a safe place to live. Some of the questions also ask about your sense of physical and emotional safety, and whether you’re experiencing isolation and loneliness.

Q: Why are these kinds of questions being asked now?

A: This screening process is part of a statewide initiative focused on reducing health disparities and help make sure everyone gets the best care possible. This effort began in 2023 and is being adopted by hospitals across the state.

Q: What if I don’t want to answer?

A: The questions are multiple choice, and you can always pick the option “I choose not to answer this question.” You can also indicate that you do have a social or economic need, but you do not want any help at this time.

Q: What do you do with the answers? Are my responses private?

A: Yes, your responses are private. They become part of your personal health record and are carefully safeguarded in the same way as all of your personal health information. Your care team may share your responses with other clinicians, as appropriate, to help connect you to health care resources.

If you give permission, they can also help you connect to local agencies and nonprofits that can provide help with needs beyond the health care system. Periodically, we will also share anonymous data with the state, to help identify and track public health trends.

Q: What if I don’t need help? Do I still have to do this?

A: All patients will receive these screening questions so that this program has the opportunity to improve the health of every person in our community, regardless of who they are. Some health disparities can be easily seen, but others are invisible. By participating in this initiative, you will be helping us work together to identify our community’s needs and create new processes and partnerships for improving the well-being of everyone in our region.

So when you come across this new set of questions at your next doctor’s visit, know that it’s a very deliberate effort to apply the essential principles of diversity, equity and inclusion to the delivery of your health care. Your answers become the guiding force in shaping equitable health care for all.