Kaiser Permanente is one of the country’s largest healthcare organizations, well known for its integrated care networks, advanced medical services, commitment to cutting-edge healthcare technology, and continued investment in local communities.
Its latest venture is through its Thriving Communities Fund, originally launched in 2018 with an endowment of $200 million with the intention of creating affordable housing. Now, in its latest announcement, the fund has been doubled to $400 million, with a renewed commitment to the original mission.
Bechara Choucair, Senior Vice President and Chief Health Officer for Kaiser explains: “By bringing together the capabilities of the health and investment sectors, Kaiser Permanente can strengthen neighborhoods, improve health, and help communities thrive.”
The press release further discusses: “This step comes as part of Kaiser Permanente’s efforts to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic among underrepresented communities, including low-income and communities of color, whose health and economic well-being have been hardest hit […] Health care systems are ideally suited to be impact investors, deploying their resources to reach upstream and move the economic levers that drive community health. Directing investments to high-impact assets like affordable housing and local businesses has the potential for strong, long-term returns on community health.”
The move comes at a time when healthcare organizations and experts are increasingly focusing on social determinants of health (SDoH). Broadly speaking, SDoH refers to the “conditions in the places where people live, learn, work, and play that affect a wide range of health and quality-of life-risks and outcomes.”
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I have previously written about SDoH and how organizations are investing to address these factors. The reason for this newfound commitment by healthcare systems is straightforward: studies have repeatedly demonstrated that improving SDoH is a direct way to improve a given community’s overall health outcomes.
In a landmark initiative called The EveryONE Project, the American Academy of Family Physicians discusses: “Non-medical social needs, or social determinants of health (SDOH), have a large influence on an individual’s health outcomes. For the medical community to have a significant and lasting impact on the health of their patients and communities, it must address the needs of patients outside the clinic walls. Effectively implementing programs to identify and attend to these social factors depends on the specific needs of the patient population, the ability of the practice to assess these needs, and the availability of community resources.”
The value of addressing SDoH is self-evident when properly analyzed. For many patients who perhaps do not have easy access to trustworthy child care, or are wage dependent on an hourly basis, or do not have access to regular means of transportation, or perhaps do not have an assurance of access to healthy food daily, healthcare can become huge burden. Even something that millions of people take for granted, such as navigating follow-up with a primary care physician, can become extremely onerous, let alone something as cumbersome as being able to afford life-saving medications. Now, if unaffordable housing is added into the picture, the problem is compounded even further; in addition to food, wage, and healthcare insecurity, there is now a challenge in housing security.
Housing insecurity is a serious issue, and has become a significant plight for millions of Americans. A recent piece by Lucia Mutikani for Reuters explains that housing prices continue to skyrocket: “The median new house price in February increased 10.7% from a year ago to $400,600. House prices have risen 31% compared to three years ago.” With this rise in prices, concomitant housing insecurity follows, especially in larger metro areas where rent prices have congruently increased.
Indeed, Kaiser is trying to play a part in solving one aspect of this pervasive conundrum, with the hopes of making investments in the right places to improve local communities. Although achieving housing security is just one component of the larger SDoH umbrella, it is certainly one of the most critical pieces, paying homage to a fundamental human need.