How providers are meeting patients’ basic needs—and where they could do more

In an environment increasingly focused on whole-person health, addressing social determinants of health (SDoH)—the nonmedical factors that influence health outcomes—is key for providers looking to improve patient outcomes and deliver on expectations from the evolving healthcare system (see sidebar, “Definitions”). Indeed, as a trusted source of care and information, providers can play an important role in the effort to meet people’s basic needs.

To understand where providers are in their journey to support these needs, we conducted a survey among 75 provider systems across the United States regarding their prioritization, resourcing, capabilities, and programming for SDoH. These findings provide a landscape view of both where providers are today and where they aspire to be.1Patients struggle with unmet basic needs: Medical providers can help,” McKinsey, April 1, 2022. While most providers say they are prioritizing and investing in SDoH, they have an opportunity to move from siloed, one-off efforts for select patient groups to comprehensive efforts supporting whole-person health at scale.

About the survey

This article primarily uses data from the McKinsey Social Determinants of Health Provider Survey conducted in December 2021. The survey was a 30-minute, online poll of 75 providers across the United States who could speak about SDoH-related efforts within their organizations. To better reflect the variety of provider types that exist across the United States, the survey included a representative number of providers by type (for example, academic medical center, children’s, safety net, and community), size (for example, by revenue and number of beds), geography (for example, rural, urban, and suburban), and payer mix (for example, Medicare, Medicaid, and commercial).

Given the limitations of online surveys, it is possible that biases were introduced as a result of undercoverage or nonresponse.

Intention versus action

While most providers said they prioritize social determinants of health, more than two-thirds said they have limited or nonexistent capabilities to do so today.

What capabilities are most needed?

Few providers reported strength across capabilities related to social determinants of health.

Where providers are investing and why

To date, about 70 percent of providers have made investments of more than $1 million in social determinants of health, often from grants and donations.

Improving screening capabilities and potential actions

While most providers said they have capabilities to screen patients for basic unmet needs, they have not standardized screening practices, analytics, and coordination across these efforts.

The programming gap

Providers tend to be more robust in screening for social determinants of health (SDoH) than in programming to meet needs.

Recognizing that healthcare workers face unmet basic needs

In addition to addressing patients' social determinants of health, providers are increasingly supporting the unmet basic needs of their own employees.

Financial resources: The key to addressing unmet basic needs

Providers agreed that broader ecosystem actions to reduce financial barriers would have the greatest impact on their ability to address social determinants of health.

Providers can consider a variety of tactical actions.

As trusted sources of healthcare and information, providers play a vital role in addressing patients’ unmet basic needs. Providers are increasingly prioritizing and investing in social determinants of health, according to our survey, but they have room for growth in bolstering capabilities, providing more robust programming, and codifying accountability. The following seven actions could help providers build on existing efforts and optimize impact in addressing SDoH for their patient populations:

  • Link unmet basic needs to key priorities. Take an SDoH lens to mission-critical strategic priorities, such as value-based care, quality improvement, patient engagement, and risk adjustment.
  • Organize for success. Identify an executive lead, build a cross-functional leadership team, establish SDoH measures, align incentives, and incorporate patient voices.
  • Collect data to inform interventions. Determine data needs, implement comprehensive screening processes with support from electronic health records, and ensure that assessments of community health needs are actionable.
  • Make informed financial commitments. Conduct additional research, identify the highest-impact SDoH interventions, and focus investments on related programming and efforts.
  • Develop a referral and support infrastructure. Establish an infrastructure to connect patients with services and invest in resource coordinators to help patients meet needs.
  • Measure outcomes and share successes. Define measures that are linked with strategic KPIs, track performance, make iterative adjustments, and share findings.
  • Convene and lead external SDoH activities. Partner with others to address unmet basic needs in communities, consider becoming an anchor organization to improve social factors, and review opportunities to meet employees’ unmet basic needs.

To learn more about the impact of social determinants of health, see Tamara Baer, Erica Coe, Anne Koffel, and Jordan VanLare, “Patients struggle with unmet basic needs: Medical providers can help,” McKinsey, April 1, 2022.

Explore a career with us