Addressing social determinants of health can no longer be an afterthought. Here is how employers and health plans could act now.

addressing social determinants of health graphic

Author: Gabriela Perez

While there is little doubt that genetics and lifestyle choices play critical roles in influencing someone’s health, researchers are increasingly demonstrating how environmental conditions in which people are born, live, and work, play equally as important a role in shaping health outcomes. 

Being aware of these broader conditions that influence people’s health supports a more respectful and human-centered level of care that incorporates lived experiences, optimizes health outcomes, improves communication and helps reduce health inequities. Research shows that as much as 50% of a person’s health outcomes are determined by these factors, better known as social determinants of health. Recognizing their importance can help us better understand our communities, effectively communicate about health-related conditions and most importantly improve health outcomes.

Social determinants of health have been shown to directly impact many reproductive and family conditions like preterm birth, unintended pregnancy, infertility, cervical cancer, maternal mortality, amongst others. The COVID-19 health emergency as well as recently-heightened focus on racial justice have underscored health disparities, particularly among Black and Latino populations in the U.S. Social determinants of health such as income level, education, housing status, racial discrimination, and exposure to violence have been shown to directly impact birth outcomes. 

This public health crisis is accelerating due to COVID-19. Our own research has shown that post-COVID, maternal healthcare inequities may increase further, with a disproportionate impact on Black women. Black women in general experience higher rates of preterm birth compared with non-Hispanic White women, and their newborns experience up to three times higher mortality rates. During the pandemic, we found that over 30% of prenatal appointments were modified or canceled, and Black women were more likely to be asked to modify their visits. Once rescheduled, 61% of Black women felt that their modified visit covered less care/information compared to a normal visit.

Healthcare institutions and policy makers have long-understood that social determinants directly impact health, but to truly solve these issues, greater collaboration between researchers, institutions and communities are needed.

Given our vast reach and the fact that Ovia accompanies families throughout pregnancy, Ovia Health has the unique opportunity to contribute invaluable data to the scientific study of women’s health, as well as the social determinants of health. Since our founding, we have been working closely with researchers to explore and help improve various determinants of health outcomes and are constantly optimizing our clinical programs to better meet the varying needs of our community.

Through investments in research and advocacy, access to health services, mental health coaching, prenatal care adherence, and social/expert support, we continue to do our part to address social determinants of reproductive and family health. But in order for us to successfully chip away at these challenges, employers, health plans and institutions must work together to understand the ways social determinants of health impact their populations and then offer customized solutions that improve outcomes. 

One of the most rewarding aspects of growing the Ovia community and expanding our offerings during the past eight years has been the ability to partner with various health plans and organizations who share our mission to improve the world for women and families.

Our clinical research group studies patient outcomes and associated risk factors to understand gaps in care and how to better serve patients, and has been able to establish invaluable partnerships with institutions across the U.S. We recognize the interplay between certain social determinants of health — for example, incarceration, education and poverty — and have adopted a holistic approach when it comes to addressing these issues. An approach that entails combining point solutions with an overarching, guiding philosophy to ensure that our apps meet industry-leading standards of accessibility and personalization. 

When it comes to education, communication barriers are often the biggest drivers of health disparities. This is why Ovia’s in-app content is designed to be at a middle-school reading level, to allow members access to crucial healthcare information. We have also translated our apps into Spanish and made them accessible for those with disabilities, further broadening our ability to serve our member population.

We also understand how powerful social and community learning can be to influence behavior, which is why we created Ovia Community, a vibrant and supportive community of new and expecting parents with over 300K daily posts & responses. We also launched Health Coaching to provide tailored one-on-one support to our members. We wanted to design features that foster safe relationships between members who may be going through similar experiences and also offer the option for personalized health coaching to provide high-touch support whenever needed. Our health coaches work from evidence-based care plans to provide members with the highest quality support for all of their health questions and decisions. Additionally, we offer predictive coaching where coaches automatically reach out to members to provide guidance if they enter a specific data point or reach a milestone that, coupled with their existing health profile, could indicate a risk factor for a health complication.  

In light of increasing accessibility and interactions with the healthcare system, we provide our members with a directory to help them find a quality in-network healthcare provider, with whom they feel comfortable working. Then, we support them further by offering tracking tools to best plan for upcoming appointments and follow-ups.

While the concept of social determinants of health is not new, the current crisis has highlighted and magnified existing health disparities. It is essential that healthcare providers and solutions seek out opportunities that aim to fill these critical health gaps. Ovia will continue to push barriers and forge partnerships in line with our commitment to make a happy and healthy family possible for everyone.