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Can Health Tech Help Us Address Social Drivers of Health?

Dec. 17, 2019

We know that 70% to 80% of health is determined outside of health care settings and by factors such as where you live, what kind of food you have access to and early childhood experiences. Yet most of the money we focus on health in the United States goes toward providing health care — really, sick care. This is starting to shift with the growing national and local focus among health care organizations and leaders on addressing these social drivers of health.

Now that health care dollars are shifting to addressing these factors, so has health tech innovation. A quick Google search of “apps for loneliness,” a key social contributor to poor health and health outcomes, turns up 10 pages of results. But are apps and technology the answer? What role will they or should they play in addressing the needs of people whose health and wellness would improve we were able to meet those needs?

Elizabeth Jacobs speaking at Capital Factory.

Elizabeth Jacobs speaking at Capital Factory

As one of the featured presenters at Heath Tech Austin’s The Future of Health Summit on Dec. 11, I got to ask this question of the audience of venture capitalists and tech entrepreneurs. I shared that while tech innovation is likely an important tool to addressing these needs, we need to be cautious and thoughtful in how it is used.

A major concern is that people are complex and unique, and they often have many social needs that need to be met. If someone who is socially isolated and lonely also has difficulty getting transportation to their doctor’s appointments and does not have access to healthy food, would we ask them to use three different apps or technologies they can access to help them with those factors? Many of the new technologies and efforts to address social drivers focus on just one issue, when almost always people’s needs are multifactorial. If we don’t address most of them, it’s likely there will be little improvement in that one issue.

The other concern I shared with the audience is the focus on saving health care dollars by addressing people’s needs. What if the investment in these services improves people’s lives and well-being but does not save a health care organization or insurer money? Does that mean it does not have value and should not be invested in? As a primary care physician who has spent my career caring for patients in safety net clinics, I would strongly argue that money is the wrong focus and we should instead think about investing in our patients’ health and well-being.

Let’s take this opportunity to take advantage of health tech to make our patients’ lives and communities better, but let’s do it thoughtfully with those we serve firmly in our hearts and minds.