The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need for a renewed focus on addressing health disparities and unmet social drivers of health (SDOH).
Many individuals on Medicaid utilize public programs such as free or reduced cost school lunches and employment assistance programs. When COVID-19 stay-at-home orders and service disruption began, many of these individuals lost access to these community resources and faced new financial restrictions that made it difficult to meet their basic needs.
There is a continued need to identify and analyze data where we see negative health outcomes tied directly to unmet SDOH. There is also a great opportunity to see how we can engage with communities, build trust and instill confidence in the health system to help historically underserved communities. This is most impactful through partnerships with community-based organizations, faith-based organizations, and working with local leaders to understand unique community needs, fostering conversations around health education.
Building health equity
The COVID-19 pandemic introduced programmatic flexibilities that allowed states to leverage new technologies like telehealth to better care for individuals enrolled in Medicaid. While these technologies addressed some health disparities, like lack of access to transportation, they created new disparities, including lack of reliable access to the internet and unfamiliarity with technology resources. As we look to harness digital health, it will require health system considerations regarding potential access issues to ensure that we do not exacerbate existing disparities.
Building health equity by addressing health disparities
Addressing health disparities is health equity in action. At UnitedHealthcare Community & State, we are continuously improving how we collect and analyze data at the state and federal level to create actionable goals that address health disparities. By understanding exactly where there is a need and who that need is impacting, we can create interventions for lasting solutions.
For example, our work in the maternal health space is introducing new support options in local communities. Using data, we identified that mothers in certain communities were seeing poor health outcomes and giving birth to babies with low birth weights. After listening to mothers in these areas and exploring data-backed evidence, we are helping build capacity for doulas, or professionally trained labor companions, to support new moms. We continue to look for new ways to build social and community infrastructure to support positive maternal outcomes. We’re using strategies like value-based purchasing and inviting different voices to the table, including organizations like March of Dimes, to discuss new solutions to improve these outcomes.
COVID-19 exacerbated unmet SDOH
As COVID-19 vaccination rates increase and we look toward a post-public health emergency world, we enter a new phase of understanding and addressing how health disparities were impacted by the pandemic. We have already seen conditions like substance use disorders and other behavioral health conditions become more prevalent since the beginning of the pandemic. Tracking and analyzing these trends with data will be critical to ensuring that we are addressing these issues with effective solutions.
As a natural evolution of our focus on addressing unmet SDOH, we are working with data and communities to identify and address the root causes of health disparities and improve health outcomes. By listening, collaborating and partnering to provide support where it is needed most, we can help communities, providers and community-based organizations come together to deliver the care and support that our members need.