NQF, Aetna leaders call for national data standards for social determinants of health

Grocery store fruits and vegetables
Access to healthy food is one of several social determinants of health that would benefit from a national data standard. (Getty/Noel Hendrickson)

There’s widespread agreement that where someone lives and what they eat can have a significant impact on their life expectancy and well-being.

But there’s not much consensus on exactly how to collect that information.

Executives with the National Quality Forum (NQF) and the Aetna Foundation want to change that. Writing on Health Affairs Blog, Garth Graham, president of the Aetna Foundation, and John Bernot, senior director of quality management at NQF, argue that there should be a national standard for collecting data on social and community factors like where patients live, their education level, social support and access to healthy foods.

“This issue is more important than ever before, and it’s time for action to ameliorate the effect of these factors on our health,” the authors wrote.

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Some health systems have begun tackling social determinants of health (SDOH) data with isolated initiatives using location-based analytics and social and behavioral data. Earlier this year, Humana launched a new initiative to address social isolation and loneliness, a less-recognized issue that officials say contributes to increased costs and declines in overall well-being.

Last year, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine urged the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to collect data on social risk factors among Medicare beneficiaries.

NQF and Aetna are already taking on an effort to develop a national approach to collecting and integrating SDOH data by convening a panel of experts that have identified high priority areas like unemployment, housing and literacy. The next step involves understanding which of those factors are most impactful within individual communities.

They also note health IT systems will play a critical role.  

“Having technology in place to capture high-quality, timely and reliable data that merges clinical and social information across communities is instrumental to advancing our understanding of the landscape,” Graham and Bernot added. “This interoperability will help clinicians and organizations implement best practices, keep track of what’s working and share lessons learned.”