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The path to a healthy life doesn’t begin in the doctor’s office. It starts with people having access to fresh and nutritious food, stable housing, employment and economic security, and support from their families and communities. In fact, where a person lives often plays a bigger role in their health than the doctor they see. Decades of research show that social drivers can determine up to80% of health.

Whole health means approaching health with a broader view. It focuses on supporting a person’s overall health, rather than on treating their conditions. Digital transformation is partly responsible for making that possible.

The data revolution has advanced medical treatment, allowing care providers to share records and target medical concerns more quickly, accurately, and easily. It has provided a wealth of insights that offer a roadmap to providing more effective care. It’s possible to design a whole-health approach to healthcare that gives policymakers, companies, and individuals guidance for implementing wide-scale updates to a system that has barely budged in the way it operates for the past 30 years.

Today’s data and technology allow us to understand health more holistically, personalize healthcare, and empower people — all of which improves individual health and advances health equity.

“We know healthcare needs to be a lot more personal and a lot more oriented around individual social needs,” said Elevance Health chief health officer, Dr. Shantanu Agrawal. “And we are embarking on a new era to evolve how we work because of this.”

Physical, Behavioral, and Social Drivers of Health

The lack of consistent access to nutritious food is the most commonly reported unmet social need in the United States. According to the USDA,  about 10% of households are food insecure. That has a real and measurable impact on health: 45% of adult deaths due to heart disease, stroke, and Type 2 diabetes are associated with eating too much or too little of certain foods.

Even getting to a doctor is a challenge for some: Every year, 3.6 million people in both rural and urban communities do not obtain medical care due to transportation issues. Physical and behavioral health are deeply linked: 68% of adults with mental health disorders also have medical conditions.

These drivers of health came into sharp relief during the COVID-19 pandemic and emphasized the stark inequities that already existed in our communities. People of color and other underserved groups experience higher rates of illness and death across a wide range of health conditions, a trend that continued with COVID-19. The pandemic also negatively impacted other key drivers of health for those groups, including financial security and mental health.

The traditional approach to healthcare focuses on what’s “broken” by focusing treatment on physical or mental illness or injury and symptoms. Expanding healthcare outside of what happens in the doctor’s office offers a more complete picture of a person’s whole health — and more personalized solutions to keep them healthy. A person with diabetes who doesn’t have access to nutritious food is less likely to get better, and someone who doesn’t have transportation to her doctor’s appointment can’t get the test she needs.

How the Healthcare System Can Focus on Holistic Health

Health systems need to support a 360-degree view of health, but new solutions to move us toward that goal won’t come from just one source. Health companies that partner with communities can strengthen their efforts to forge and sustain this broader view of health.

“We are creating solutions and partnerships to advance our use of digital technology, virtual health, and artificial intelligence to best support individuals — looking at care holistically, removing barriers, and leveraging what drives health improvement most efficiently,” said Omid Toloui, Elevance Health vice president of innovation.

How can the health system generate this change? It needs to create a bigger and broader definition of health, one that includes physical, behavioral, and social drivers such as regular preventive care, a strong network of friends and family, and access to nutritious food. Seeing a person first, before their health challenges, will allow us to transform the healthcare system by putting the whole health of people at the center.

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