The connection between different aspects of our health is more evident than ever. The pandemic has highlighted the ways in which declines in mental health and physical health are intertwined – and recent research shows that ongoing stressors around finances also affect mental and physical health.
This interconnectedness means that even in the face of inflationary pressures, rising medical costs and dwindling household savings, providers and health systems have a unique opportunity to help improve people’s financial health by expanding their cycle of care beyond traditional plans. of medical treatment. Already adept at incorporating innovations that impact patient care, the healthcare industry can borrow from the fintech playbook to create and implement innovative solutions that address patient finances by lowering the cost of care or creating more flexible ways to pay.
But as with medical conditions, the connection between money and health is deep and varied with many different drivers.
The Financial Health Connection
Financial health is achieved when individuals and families can manage their daily financial lives, financial shocks such as unexpected medical events, and are willing to pursue opportunities and thrive.
Poor financial health can lead to stress or missed treatments that have negative consequences for physical or mental health. Conversely, good physical and mental health can improve our financial prospects through fewer sick days and a better ability to focus.
Research also shows that financial health is a better predictor of physical and mental health outcomes than income alone, and the disproportionate impacts that COVID-19 has had on marginalized communities further proves this.
Social Determinants of Health
Consider medical debt, a growing financial concern in America that clearly demonstrates this connection. With one in five American families having medical debt, it is the leading cause of bankruptcy in the country.
Often unexpected, the financial disruption and devastation caused by medical debt can damage physical and mental health, as well as social well-being. It impairs people’s ability to pay for basic needs such as food or shelter, avoid credit card debt, save, and pursue educational or career plans. This can lead to debt collection calls, wage garnishment and a drop in credit scores – all negative impacts on financial health.
But medical debt also carries health implications. People with medical debt have three times the rate of mental health conditions such as anxiety, stress and depression. They’re also more likely to forego care because of costs, leading to worse health conditions and potentially bigger bills in the future if a crisis hits. Unexpected health costs leading to debt, which then leads to ill health, creates a vicious interdependence that becomes increasingly difficult to break.
Medical debt and financial health in general are the main social determinants of health, but more can be done. For example, there is great opportunity for health system players to move further upstream and address financial health as a key driver of immediate material security needs such as shelter, food and transportation.
Our recent exploration of medical debt, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, sought to understand the role different players in the health ecosystem could play in reducing or resolving medical debt. We found—not surprisingly—that the complex and overlapping drivers of medical debt require a more collaborative approach between policymakers, hospital systems, insurers and employers.
By working together to better align financial assistance and benefits with consumer needs, help consumers make more informed decisions; and proactively identify and support at-risk patients, these organizations can more quickly and effectively reduce the negative impacts of social determinants such as medical debt.
Innovation, Collaboration and Impact
While it will take time to create this change, there are lessons to be learned from the fintech sector. There, innovators used technology to understand consumers faster, set measurement standards, and then connect data from and to legacy systems. These organizations ultimately helped advance financial inclusion by embracing the basic premise that what’s good for consumers is also good for business.
Similarly, we must align health care and financial services providers, policy makers, employers, insurers and innovators around the central promise of doing good by doing good at the intersection of physical, mental and financial health. Businesses that support the health and wellness alongside the financial health of their employees and customers will earn greater community loyalty, trust and reputation.
Technology innovators also have a role to play in bridging the gap between health and financial health. The growing embrace of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) in both health and finance may provide an opportunity.
Tools that evaluate real-time data-driven observations of our financial behaviors in concert with our health conditions can help identify connections and new opportunities for treatment. For example, what if a person’s wearable device reports decreased sleep and upset stomach problems for the same few days each month? AI would notice this trend and scan for causality, recognizing those recurring days associated with a monthly car bill and regularly low bank balances. An automated wallet can then shift the due date to better align with available funds, helping to reduce stress and digestive issues versus a doctor’s visit and money for medication.
Of course, this kind of approach requires big-picture thinking and deep collaboration between fintech and health technology innovators tackling complex issues like inconsistencies in data metrics or how to navigate privacy and ownership or racial bias in data. And while there is generous room for technological innovation, technology alone will not solve all our problems. There must still be a human element to support consumers in making informed decisions about their health and wealth.
Regardless, the groundwork is being laid to understand how financial health is one of many factors that influence better patient outcomes. Now, we need to come together as different industries around a common understanding of the challenge, the interconnectedness of its origins and an agreement to change the status quo.