RISE looks at recent headlines concerning social determinants of health (SDoH).

Universities partner to use virtual reality to address SDoH

A new program will teach medical students at Boise State University and the University of Utah how to understand and identify SDoH-related barriers to the patient experience through virtual reality scenarios.

Using virtual reality scenarios, the joint program will allow students to step into a patient’s perspective in the plan of care process and how their social needs, such as housing instability or limited access to a pharmacy, interfere with their health care. By providing a greater understanding of how SDoH barriers impact patients, the universities aim to empower future provider to address SDoH through better treatment plans. The program will also involve medical, dental, nursing, and social work students.

“As providers, we have to know what the barriers and facilitators are to get [patients] on a plan of care,” said Boise State School of Nursing Associate Professor Kate Doyon, in the announcement. “It should be routine to ask the patient about their world.”

To fund the initiative, the University of Utah’s VR4 Health Sciences Education program has awarded a $100,000 grant to Doyon and her research team. The grant will fund the first year of research, with the opportunity available for the research team to apply for additional funding from the National Institutes of Health.

Children of color and from low-income households receive dangerous dental fillings

Children of color and children from low-income households are still receiving mercury-based dental fillings, or amalgam fillings, despite the Food and Drug Administration asking dentists to prohibit the use of harmful fillings in children and other high-risk individuals, according to a recent article published by Health Affairs Forefront.

The amalgam fillings pose dangerous and long-term health effects, such as irreversible cognitive and neurological impairment. Low-income children typically receive dental care through Medicaid and other assistance programs, which still use amalgam fillings in their coverage despite health concerns. Since the use of the dangerous fillings remains at the discretion of dentists, it also allows racial bias to play a role when the patient is a person of color, article authors noted.

“As longtime champions of environmental health and social justice, we envision a world where all people have equal access to health and to the health care they need to thrive,” researchers wrote. “As long as Black, Latino, Native American, and low-income children receive amalgam fillings while their affluent non-Hispanic White counterparts get the safer alternative, that vision remains elusive.”

Health care costs could triple by 2040 if health inequities remain unaddressed

Health inequities could triple health care costs by 2040, according to an analysis from Deloitte. The report looked at several high-cost diseases, including breast cancer, diabetes, colorectal cancer, asthma, and cardiovascular disease, and the portion of spending attributed to health inequities.

The findings indicate that health inequities currently cost the health care system approximately $320 billion annually and could reach $1 trillion or more by 2040 if they continue to go unaddressed. The increase in costs for the health care system could increase American’s personal costs from the current average of $1,000 annually to $3,000 annually.

“This avoidable expense (in dollars and lives) is the result of an inequitable health system and could have major consequences for the health and well-being of all individuals,” researchers wrote. “No individual, family, or health system is equipped to sustain that kind of inefficiency and its implications. We can begin to address this by designing today for an equitable future.”

Researchers recommended the industry take five action steps to further equity in the health system:

  1. Be intentional with continuous focus on health equity across the health care ecosystem
  2. Form cross-sector partnerships across the industry
  3. Measure progress to identify care gaps and underserved populations
  4. Address SDoH at the individual and community level
  5. Establish trust with practitioners, institutions, and communities