Screening tool addressing poverty in patient populations

Submitted by Jerry Zeidenberg 

This article references a session that was presented at the EMR: Every Step Conference. Make sure to register for the EMR: Every Step Conference Ottawa at https://www.ontariomd.ca/about-us/events/emr-every-step-conference/emr-every-step-conference-ottawa-2019 for engaging content on OntarioMD digital health products and services.

It’s well known that poverty is a major determinant of health, and that one’s social and economic environments play a large role in whether a person becomes physically or mentally ill. However, little has been done in a practical way to identify and assist at-risk members of society at the primary care level.  

Now, however, a project has been launched to turn things around. Initially, a two-month pilot project was conducted in 2018 that gave primary care providers a computerized tool to identify patients who are at risk of living in poverty, and who could use the support of community resources.  

The project was conducted at primary care clinics in four Ontario cities – London, Sudbury, Cambridge and Toronto – under the leadership of the Toronto-based Centre for Effective practice (CEP), a not-for-profit organization which started at the University of Toronto’s Department of Family and Community Medicine to create and disseminate evidence-based improvements in primary care. 

“My office screened 700 patients for poverty, and 100 were identified,” said Dr. Mario Elia, a London-based family physician and one of the pilot site leads.  

Overall, 4,517 patients were screened at the four sites, and 12 percent were found to be at risk of poverty.  

Of these, 30 percent were provided with customized resources and referrals to community supports at the same visit.  

Dr. Elia and Claire Stapon, a manager at the CEP, spoke about the poverty screening project at a session for physicians at OntarioMD’s EMR Every Step Conference, held in Toronto in September.  

Stapon said that 20 percent of Ontario families live in poverty – about 1.57 million persons. At the same time, she noted that 50 percent of a population’s health is determined by social and economic environment, according to recent studies. 

Indeed, all of the following have been strongly correlated with a person’s environment: diabetes, asthma, arthritis, cancer, COPD and mental illness. 

“Often, doctors don’t have the resources, and we struggle with how to help patients living in poverty,” said Dr. Elia.  

The computerized intervention devised through the Centre for Effective Practice has been identified as a step in the right direction.  

The tool was developed in partnership with CognisantMD, which produces Ocean software, a system that helps automate information gathering as patients arrive at a clinic. Also involved is 211Ontario, a free helpline and online database of Ontario’s community and social services.  

The Centre for Effective Practice has been producing other tools used in clinics; the one created for this project has been optimized to screen for patients struggling financially.  

In the pilot, staff and clinicians at the four clinics were first given education about the topic and training on use of the tool. Dr. Elia said it wasn’t difficult to implement at his clinic, as the office had already been using Ocean questionnaires to gather patient information.  

All patients over the age of 18 were given tablet computers, on which the form to screen for poverty would pop-up. Questions included such examples as, “Do you ever have difficulty making ends meet at the end of the month?” and “Have you filed your taxes?”  

Not only does the tool effectively identify at-risk populations, importantly, it also provides physicians with sets of local supports and resources for patients.  

Low income patients who haven’t filed their taxes – because they fear they might have to pay – are often entitled to tax refunds. The tool shows doctors how to connect their patients with the right resources in order to file their returns and receive these refunds.  

Other social supports are also available, making it much easier for physicians and their staff to help patients in need.  

The Ocean tool integrates with EMRs and can automatically create reminders on follow-up visits to inquire about different issues.  

After the pilot project ended, each of the sites had the option to stop using the tool. However, they all wanted to continue using it, Stapon said.  

Now the Centre for Effective Practice wants to spread the resources to other primary care practices in Ontario. They have created a modified version of the tool for TELUS PS suite physician systems, to start. Eventually they’d like to make the tool available for all EMRs in Canada. Those who are interested in more information can visit http://cep.health/poverty.