I can attest to the benefit of incorporating data regarding social determinants of health (SDOH) when diagnosing and treating patients. Clinical markers are always going to be important when it comes to understanding the ailments and history of a particular patient. However, providers will need to augment their data and supplement with SDOH for a “holistic” picture.

Hospitals and clinics vary wildly in how they collect, store, and share SDOH data, if they collect it at all. Medical staff are relying too much on conventional sources of data, such as healthcare claims or electronic health records, without considering new options for where valuable information can be mined and leveraged analytically.

To improve this process, we need to start by seeing SDOH as pieces of the puzzle, not the whole portrait, of a patient’s health. We can point to a patient who is diabetic but may never consider SDOH such as nutritional awareness growing up, access to healthy dining options where they live, mental health, or proximity to a pharmacy. Not having this information will ultimately create knowledge gaps in effective treatment and clinical pathway.

To improve data collection, we must start at the source. Providers should consider changing their techniques and approaches when discussing a patient’s health during their visit. Asking clinical questions along with contextual questions, such as “how’s everything at home?” can unearth critical social determinant information.

Additionally, the medical community needs to embrace social determinant data that is produced from non-traditional sources or platforms. Platforms and devices such as wearables and fitness trackers give us a valuable glimpse into a person’s health and behavior in-between their time at clinics and hospitals.

Most importantly, we need to impose a standardized method of collection for social determinant health data. Clinics and hospitals cannot effectively share pertinent health data if they are not using the same or a similar collection and formatting process. A feedback loop is required between the patient, the provider, and even the analytics and IT departments within the healthcare organization.

Once we are able to glean on the analytic power and track improvement in quality of care while lowering overall costs, powered by the social determinant data that is readily available, the business case to change provider approach and data capturing has already been done. We will then be able to unlock the full potential of social determinant health data, and in turn, improve patient outcomes.