4 Key Approaches to Using Data Analytics for Social Determinants of Health

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Read more about author Amy Brown.

Every day customers are calling health care call centers, providing visibility into their daily reality – without even being asked. Whether or not you’re listening, customers are sharing details about the social factors impacting their health care decisions within every interaction. These factors, both positive and negative, are called social determinants of health (SDOH) and include:

  • Access to safe housing, neighborhoods, and transportation
  • Violence, racism, and discrimination
  • Access to education, sufficient income, and job opportunities
  • Access to nutritious food and opportunities for physical activity
  • Polluted air and water
  • Developed language and literacy skills

Research from the World Health Organization suggests that SDOH account for approximately 30 to 55% of health outcomes and has greater importance than lifestyle choices in impacting health. However, organizations struggle to find accurate and effective ways of identifying when, how, where, and why these factors are in play.

SDOH can be hard to identify because they are not directly related to a patient’s physical health. Additionally, many patients don’t feel comfortable disclosing those details and question how providers will use the data. While some health care organizations are attempting to collect SDOH data through surveys, the information collected can be fractional and skewed.

Not having an accurate understanding of the SDOH impacting the entire patient population can have an enormous impact, especially on vulnerable populations. The most prevalent impacts of not recognizing SDOH factors are gaps in patient care. Patients miss vital health care visits, aren’t able to follow through on recommended care plans, and don’t receive the life-sustaining medications they need.

Luckily, there is an untapped data source that can help assess social needs across communities – and it lives in the contact center. Insights from recorded customer conversations hold the key and organizations can access this data using the following steps:

1. Capture and listen to unsolicited feedback

Today, surveys are the most common way to uncover social risks and issues facing individuals, communities, or specific populations. The problem with this approach is survey results are skewed and only represent a fraction of the customer base. Incomplete responses or low completion rates negatively affect survey outcomes. Instead, organizations should source data from unsolicited feedback.

Unsolicited feedback includes the thoughts and perceptions freely expressed by patients without prompting or direct questioning. This form of unstructured data can be accessed in bidirectional conversations in recorded call center calls, customer support chat transcripts, and customer video calls. These everyday conversations offer a wealth of information about the social pressures patients face. For example, a patient may need to call a billing line to request a payment plan. From this call, the organization may learn the patient is underinsured or unemployed – both social factors affecting their ability to pay a medical bill.

While sometimes more challenging to interpret, unstructured data like unsolicited feedback is incredibly valuable because it taps into patients’ feelings and opinions in their own words and with their own perspectives. Despite its value, fewer than 20% of organizations take advantage of unstructured data. Yet, executives who rely on unstructured data for insight are 24% more likely to exceed their business goals.

Tools like speech analytics enable organizations to easily interpret unsolicited feedback by leveraging AI to gain rich insights into customer conversations. Speech analytics helps organizations listen at scale to discover customer frustrations and the reasons they abandon their health care journeys. With this knowledge in hand, organizations can develop strategies to alleviate customer barriers.

2. Pinpoint quality and access indicators

SDOH data is a significant component of both the cost and the success of health care in driving patient outcomes. Health care organizations must pinpoint which (and where) social issues emerge to inform their approaches to improving access to care.

They can also work strategically to develop and implement programs designed to help solve social problems facing their most vulnerable patient populations. For example, Humana Inc. recognized housing stability as a critical SDOH and announced a multimillion-dollar investment to increase the supply of affordable housing in several states.

Speech analytics can leverage unsolicited feedback to surface common themes and trends within communities to help organizations direct patients to available resources. Without the ability to address social issues, even the most sophisticated health care system only services an advantaged fraction of the total population.

And those hurt the most? Struggling, socioeconomically disadvantaged patients. Failure to recognize indicators of SDOH costs an organization in the form of negative patient outcomes, increased costly ER visits and communities not getting what they need the most.

3. Refocus communications and programming

Obtaining near-real-time indicators of customer behavior from conversational data empowers health care systems to intervene quickly and provide assistance. Armed with this data, organizations can refocus their communication and strategize where to route resources for programming and other initiatives.

Organizations can study conversational data to learn more about the nature of SDOH and create a communication strategy that addresses these needs. Effective response plans to indicators of SDOH require listening to conversations at scale and identifying the natural language used by patients. Understanding how people express the real-life scenarios that organizations call “SDOH” are a critical success factor.

But making a difference requires more than understanding the right vernacular. Organizations must develop long-term listening and response plans that connect the patients who indicate a SDOH through a natural conversation with the care plan teams that can provide effective interventions and support. 

4. Provide agent training opportunities

Conversational intelligence is critically important to solving health disparities by providing a pathway for health care providers to empathize and understand. Acknowledging the social factors impacting surrounding communities offers health care systems immense opportunity to lay out relevant use cases and training for their front-line agents and employees.

Organizations need to build a culture of understanding around widespread social issues. Sharing patient voices directly with leadership is a powerful way to prompt changes, enabling front-line agents and employees to deliver a better customer experience and find additional resources to assist.

Customer conversations offer a powerful source of truth for addressing systemic barriers that lower accessibility and quality of care. Addressing social determinants of health with intention and thoughtfulness builds positive patient relationships and improves health outcomes within a community.

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