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Study Shows Correlation Between Economic Need and Health

December 16—Health Leads is in the news once again this week after findings published in a new report were released on Monday. The report addresses whether meeting the basic resource needs, such as housing, food, transportation and medication, in primary care can help improve patients’ health. Health patients that indicated a need in one or more of these areas were then referred by Health Leads volunteers to available community resources in their area. The findings of the report showed a significant improvement in patients’ blood pressure and cholesterol levels, though not with blood glucose levels.

The Health Leads program evaluation took place from October 2012 to September 2015 in three separate academic primary practices. One of those practices, as was mentioned in a LIHEAP Clearinghouse feature earlier this month, was in Baltimore, Maryland, at the John Hopkins Children’s Center’s Harriet Lane Clinic. Another practice that was included in the study was Massachusetts General Hospital, where Dr. Seth A. Berkowitz, who led the study, found that the patients who saw improvement in their blood pressure were especially significant. For some patients, he said, the result was similar to adding a new blood pressure medication to their regimen, but with none of the side effects.

Berkowitz also talked about how patients would often say they couldn’t afford medication. In digging a little deeper, he said these patients sometimes had gone into debt paying utility bills, so they couldn’t afford their medication. This is where referring people to programs like LIHEAP could help.

The Health Leads program began as the brainchild of Rebecca Onie, a then undergraduate student at Harvard who was working with the affordable housing unit of the Greater Boston Legal Services. Realizing in her work that an individual’s socioeconomic needs were affecting their health, she surmised that if hospitals and clinics also addressed those needs, they would have more success addressing the patients’ health issues.

She began by creating the non-profit and enlisting the help of a pediatrician at Boston City Hospital and several undergraduate volunteers to question patients about their socioeconomic needs and help them apply for local community programs, such as LIHEAP.

LIHEAPs can help by providing bill payment assistance or heating/cooling system repair or replacement. They can also work on behalf of vulnerable households in protecting them from shut-offs, especially when medical needs are present. Many utility service commissions have created a moratorium on utility shut-offs during certain months or under certain conditions.