How to tackle major health care challenges.

A Roof Over Your Head

Housing is a key social determinant of health. Today, organizations in the health care sector are acting on that knowledge.

By Erine Gray

A small tree trimmed into a house shape with its trunk painted to match a house next to it.

Per Swantesson/Stocksy

Our living conditions affect our health. Anyone who has ever experienced stress and instability at home understands that it takes an emotional and physical toll. A study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2018 confirms this, showing that kids growing up amid unstable housing conditions are at greater risk of hospitalization and developmental delays.

My experience as founder and CEO of Aunt Bertha bears this out. Our organization operates a national search and referral online platform that connects people in need with the right services at community-based organizations, hospitals, health plans, government agencies and schools. Housing related inquiries dominate searches on our website, accounting for 54% more search activity compared with the second-leading category, health, during the 12-month period ending Aug. 31, 2019.

One revealing feature of our platform is that people are able to use it anonymously. When we look at the differences between what people search for when they’re not logged in compared with when they’re sitting alongside a social worker who is searching on their behalf, we see striking differences. The anonymity of the searches allows people to pursue topics they may not be comfortable bringing up with their care coordinator. For breadwinners, housing very much fits in this category.

The good news is that health-focused organizations are taking action. Our partners, including AmeriHealth Caritas, have proactively encouraged their teams to invest the time and resources required to help people meet basic needs. They understand it is often less expensive to address housing issues than the health problems that follow them.

Sometimes all a person needs to continue living in their home is something such as a wheelchair ramp. Or perhaps it’s one-time mortgage-payment assistance. When the alternative is the devastation of homelessness or the added expense of moving into an assisted-living facility, it makes sense to help people remain in their homes—or find a new place to live. In recent years, we’ve seen nonprofits, community development groups and health care organizations work together to buy apartment complexes and staff them with nurses, and then rent those as affordable units for patients who are consuming a lot of health care services.

The backdrop to these approaches is that health care professionals and policymakers have gained a greater understanding of the role social determinants of health play in influencing patient outcomes. Housing is near the top of the list of critical factors. When people can find stable housing, they can safeguard their overall health.