Health Leads expands movement to place social needs at the center of preventive care

At TEDMED 2012, Rebecca Onie asked a simple question with an extremely complex answer:

Why don’t we have a health care system that keeps us healthy?

As a college sophomore, Onie realized through her work as a legal aid intern that lack of basic needs like food, heat, transportation, and health insurance were preventing people from achieving – and, more importantly, maintaining – good health. And she found that most often, doctors practiced a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy around these issues, assuming, though not without anguish, that these solutions were simply out of reach.

In 1996, Onie co-founded Health Leads, an organization that enables clinicians to “prescribe” food, heat, and other basic resources their patients need to be healthy, alongside medical care.  And what began as a student-run organization in a pediatric waiting room is now national in scale.  In 2014, nearly 1,000 student Advocates will connect over 14,000 patients and their families to the resources they need to be healthy.

In the last two years, Health Leads has received over 1,000 requests for expansion from hospitals, providers, health systems, and others looking for a way to address their patients’ non-medical needs.  On our blog in September, Onie called this demand “symbolic of a much larger shift taking place in the healthcare system.”

And this demand comes from a healthcare system ready for a change.  As Onie reported on Forbes.com after her trip to the 2014 World’s Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos, the sector is finally asking not whether it is necessary to address patients’ social needs, but how to do so effectively:

This momentum extends beyond the handful of health systems whose vision and values tie explicitly to a comprehensive definition of health….Each of these signals the unprecedented moment unfolding in the U.S. healthcare system, triggered by shifting market trends and financial incentives.

Recently, Health Leads received a $16 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) to scale its impact.  The grant represents the largest in Health Leads history and one of the largest ever awarded by RWJF.

The grant will enable Health Leads to serve more patients around the country, as well as help facilitate its next phase of growth – building a national movement to catalyze the healthcare system to address patients’ basic needs as a standard part of care.  In a new article on Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR), Health Leads outlines its innovative approach to scale, intending to partner with a small number of leading health systems to drive the change it seeks in the healthcare system:

“Growing in this way enables us to focus on deep integration with our partners, and frees up valuable resources and management time to focus on catalyzing the ecosystem surrounding those partners.”

One of the first new partners in this phase of Health Leads growth: Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH).  Last October, Health Leads opened a desk at MGH that has already served hundreds of patients. And most recently, the organization has expanded west.  At the end of May, Health Leads launched two new sites in California’s Bay Area – one at Contra Costa Regional Medical Center and the other at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center – Richmond.  It is partnerships like these that Health Leads believe will drive the sector to the “new normal” it envisions.  As Health Leads said in SSIR:

Going small may not be glamorous. But if we can couple a powerful on-the-ground demonstration with pathways to change the sector, we will have the opportunity at last to transform health care for patients, physicians, and us all.