Social, now

The top floor of Baylor Scott and White hospital is dark wood, deep carpet and lots of glass, out of which one can see Dallas stretching to the dusty horizon. A physician noted that the people visible to the southeast near the Ferris wheel tend to die about 12 years sooner than those on the other side the same distance from the hospital. This is why I was there talking about the “social determinants” of health and what religion has to do with them. You’ll notice the phrase has two problems, “social” (when it really means “non-medical”) and, worse, “determinants” (when it really means variables). Hospital leaders hear about these factors a lot these days, but nearly all the problem and possibilities called social lie on the other side of the sidewalk outside their control.

The school is way more important than the hospital. Two scholars (Case and Deaton) sifted life expectancy data to clarify that people who don’t graduate from college tended to die 8 years younger. It’s not because the books would have taught them health-related tips. College is a social marker, mainly about one’s parents social position which is a big boost toward the student’s. Hospitals are pouring money into new IT to see what social determinant things such as food and short-term housing that their patients need. That is nice but misses the point. And it misses where to work.

It may surprise the well-educated, but not those on the downside of the data. The two thirds of Americans who did not go to college know all about early death; no wonder they are angry and vote with fury.

Social is the thing that happens when people talk to each other. In this case, at Tova Coffee House in Lubbock, TX

In 2008 the World Health Organization commissioned a global study on these poorly named factors, led by Dr. Marmot, who was famous for noticing that life expectancy decreased in a step-wise factor with each click down in social position within bureaucracy. The 2008 report said sharply that “social determinants can be more important than health care or lifestyle choices in influencing health.…studies suggest that SDH account for between 30-55% of health outcomes. ….the contribution of sectors outside health to population health outcomes exceeds the contribution from the health sector.” We’ve wanted to blame the doctors and the hospitals when the problem falls on all the rest of us.

The critical role of social drivers has two inconvenient implications for hospitals and one for people of faith. Hospitals have been happy with the assumption that they are the key to extending the health to everybody who can see their large buildings. Modern healthcare is mind-numbingly expensive. The business model draws from a deep well of borrowed money from nervous bankers requiring vast reserves to ensure they are paid back. The weird irony is that hospitals look like they have a lot of money, but it is reserved for the banks, not the neighborhoods. Everybody hates this.

Hospitals are legally obligated to provide “community benefit” but nearly all of it pays for expensive free care offered inside their tall buildings. Some count medical education (of doctors, not the patients). In some states they count the loss between what government pays for Medicare and Medicaid and the actual cost. Less than a nickel of every community benefit dollar goes to anything in community. Everyone involved hates that, too.

We should release the hospitals from the unrealistic expectation they can do what they’re not designed to do. They deserve tax benefit for giving so much care to people who can’t pay. We don’t want citizens dying, writhing on the streets. But—and this is the inconvenient part—we should no longer pretend that hospitals can solve what all the rest of us need to be accountable for. If hospitals can’t do it, they shouldn’t get political credit for pretending to try. Let the money follow the science to where health is created: especially the schools, social supports and public health that advances the health of everybody.

The day after speaking in Dallas, I was on a Stakeholder Health Zoom, a sophisticated group that knows all about this cruel reality. We we talked about how to get the money and attention out the door and into the streets. One promising clue is the rapid spread of communities using the Vital Conditions and the Thriving Together document to approach the radical complexity of assets in community. This has already sparked an extraordinary 53-agency Federal Working Group to advance health for “all people, no exceptions” at that level.  We just have to do the same at the local level.

As I was preparing for the Dallas lectures, I came across a note that President Carter sent me when I was leaving his Center to go over to Emory University.  He was not impressed. And he would not be any more impressed with my recent move to Wake Forest University Div School.

He hates needless theory when there is something practical to do. And he hates pretending that someone else should do what we can do any Saturday. Science says that health comes from people being in the right relationship to each other. It always has.

That the power of the social.