Healthcare systems around the world continue to face many challenges when it comes to delivering high-quality and accessible care to all patients. While they have made advancements, massive gaps remain in adequately meeting the comprehensive needs of people seeking medical services. This is particularly true for vulnerable and underserved populations. As healthcare bosses look to reform their systems, a laser focus must be placed on identifying and addressing the unmet needs that act as barriers to optimal patient care. Doing so is vital both ethically and economically – as it can greatly improve patient outcomes and experiences while at the same time lowering costs associated with poor health.
Understanding Unmet Patient Needs
To make meaningful improvements in healthcare delivery, leaders need to start by thoroughly understanding their patient population’s unmet needs. These could span the medical, behavioral, psychosocial, environmental, and practical domains. On the medical side of things, uninsured and underinsured patients often lack access to primary, specialty, dental, vision, mental health, and other services that are critical for wellness. Those with insurance coverage could still experience challenges getting authorizations or paying high deductibles and copays. As well as this, shortages of healthcare professionals can make it difficult to access timely care and establish a certain continuity with providers.
Mental health, in particular, represents an area of massive unmet need, with issues like depression, anxiety, trauma, addiction, and serious psychiatric disorders often undiagnosed or under treated. The stigma around mental illness together with shortages of behavioral health professionals contributes to this access gap. Even for physical conditions, care remains too disjointed from the psychosocial aspects influencing disease management.
Opportunities to Improve Delivery
Bridging such big gaps when it comes to meeting patient needs involves rethinking how we deliver healthcare at systemic and organizational levels. Some high-impact strategies might include:
Comprehensive Primary Care
The primary care setting offers an ideal opportunity to address both medical and non-medical patient needs in a holistic, coordinated way. According to the good folk at Horizon Health, practices can integrate behavioral health management, social work, nutrition, health education, care coordination, and enabling services (such as transportation and insurance enrollment assistance).
Partnering with community organizations helps connect patients to supportive services outside the healthcare setting. As an example, developing relationships with food banks, housing nonprofits, vocational rehabilitation programs, schools, and religious groups can provide patients with resources improving their overall wellbeing and ability to manage health conditions.
Health Information Technology
Health IT tools like patient portals, telehealth platforms, remote monitoring devices, and mobile apps allow patients to access care from anywhere while enabling providers to track their progress. Tech-based solutions can also help patients better understand their conditions, follow treatment plans, refill medications, and communicate with their care team.
Culturally Competent Care
Providing culturally and linguistically appropriate care is vital for creating a welcoming, understanding, and effective healthcare environment for diverse populations. Organizations must hire diverse staff, offer interpreter services, provide translated materials, train providers on cultural issues, and tailor care to patients’ values and preferences.
Fragmentation between physical, mental, and social services is a huge barrier to addressing patient needs. Integrated care models strategically coordinate providers across disciplines to treat the whole person. For instance, having mental health professionals embedded in primary care settings facilitates warm handoffs and mitigates stigma.
While progress is being made, immense work lies ahead to transform healthcare systems into ones meeting the full needs of those they aim to serve. This undertaking requires commitment from stakeholders across sectors—policymakers, payers, providers, community organizations, technology innovators and beyond—as no one group can drive change alone. Healthcare leaders must hold this goal at the core of all efforts to reform our broken system and create lasting impacts improving patient outcomes, experiences and lives.