Evidence and Ideas for Change Promising solutions for narrowing health inequities
Sarah Rosen Wartell
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How can we ensure that everyone has the same chance to live a long, healthy life, regardless of their race or ethnicity, how much money they earn, or where they live? Achieving this ambitious goal requires us to reach beyond health care to make sure all people have stable housing, nutritious food, a safe environment, and freedom from racial discrimination, violence, despair, and injustice.

In addition to providing lifesaving and life-enhancing medical care, institutions that deliver and pay for health care are increasingly identifying and addressing these types of social needs that profoundly influence people’s health and health inequities. As part of our latest Next50 inquiry, Urban Institute experts engaged with health care providers, thought leaders, and payers across the country. Our newest Next50 Catalyst brief, available today, examines promising solutions these changemakers are exploring to help meet people’s health-related social needs and narrow health inequities. Urban researchers also identify areas where today’s health care payers, plans, and providers need more information to take these promising strategies to the next level.

Reducing health inequities in this country presents a significant, urgent challenge. Disparities by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status are already affecting people’s longevity and quality of life—and they could worsen in the decades ahead. Stagnating wages and limited resources among families struggling financially threaten to increase the mortality rate and prevalence of chronic diseases. Our aging population could further exacerbate these trends in the overall population and escalate competing demands on government income support and health programs. We, however, believe a more equitable future is possible.

Health care providers and payers are addressing the social problems that do the greatest harm to their clients’ health by exploring these solutions:

  • systematically assessing patients’ health-related social needs
  • building community resource platforms and networks that connect patients to needed services and track their progress
  • providing health care-sector incentives for investments in nonmedical services that improve people’s health or save medical costs
  • providing sustainable financing for cross-sector initiatives that address patient’s health-related social needs
  • aligning their organizational policies and practices to reduce unmet health-related social needs and address inequities

Based on Urban experts’ conversations with changemakers in the health sector, we surfaced the following three priority areas where payers, plans, and providers say they need more information to help them accelerate promising strategies.

  • Identify social needs with the biggest impacts on health—such as hunger, social isolation, and exposure to violence—to better target interventions and investments that improve people’s well-being, narrow disparities, and reduce costs.
  • Build an evidence base of cost-effective interventions proven to address people’s health-related social needs so health care payers and providers can easily find out what works and for whom.
  • Assess strategies for integrating health, social services, and other systems to better measure costs and savings over time and across sectors and better serve patients’ health-related social needs.

I look forward to hearing your reactions as we pursue these important questions.

Research Areas Health and health care
Tags Health equity
Policy Centers Health Policy Center