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A Dell Medical Program Wants Social Factors To Be A Regular Part Of Health Care

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Joey Palacios / Texas Public Radio
A Meals on Wheels dinner can help some people better manage their health so they don't need to seek traditional medical care as often.

From Texas Standard:

It might seem obvious to some that factors like housing quality, community safety and clean air matter to a person's health. A new survey from the Episcopal Health Foundation validates that idea. It shows that a majority of Texans think so-called social determinants of health are at least as important, if not more so, to their well-being than actual medical care.

Now, an initiative at the University of Texas at Austin's Dell Medical School is developing programs to put these findings into action. Mini Kahlon is executive director of the initiative, called Factor Health, and she says the results of the Episcopal Health Foundation survey were significant because they came from the patients themselves – about 1,200 of them. She says their feelings echo the findings of public health researchers.

"We have heard through the data that, in fact, non-medical factors are essential," Kahlon says. "Some say up to 80% of our health is defined by the non-medical factors."

Kahlon says the patient feedback means her organization can start developing programs that are focused on things like nutrition, living wages and even sick leave.

Convincing insurance companies to pay for non-medical health programs is an important part of Factor Health's work, Kahlon says. She says her group is starting with small tests to show, for example, how getting diabetics the right food can help them better manage their disease. In turn, it will try to show that paying for that food is a worthy investment for insurance companies because they could end up saving money on medical care for those people in the future.

Kahlon says these kinds of programs don't cancel out the need for regular medical care, especially at a time when hospitals are closing all over rural Texas. But she says preventive, non-medical care can actually free up doctors and health care facilities to treat more people.

"When we utilize our health care resources for the wrong kind of care, that means we don't have the time for when you really need the medical attention you require," Kahlon says.

Short doctors' appointments are a symptom of that – some clocking in at just five minutes.

One of Factor Health's current programs helps patients manage diabetes at home with proper nutrition from Meals on Wheels. The program doesn't require a doctor or a medical facility, and is "easier for people to integrate into their lives," Kahlon says. And if the program proves successful, insurance companies like United Health Care and Amerigroup, who are working with Factor Health, will be more likely to pay for it.

Written by Caroline Covington.

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