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Health care's blind side: The overlooked connection between social needs and good health, summary of findings from a survey of America's physicians

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Four in five physicians say patients’ social needs are as important to address as their medical conditions, according to a new survey conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. For physicians serving patients in low-income communities, nine in ten physicians believe this is true.

In this national survey of primary care providers and pediatricians, 85 percent believe that unmet social needs—things like access to nutritious food, reliable transportation and adequate housing—are leading directly to worse health for all Americans. Furthermore, 4 in 5 physicians do not feel confident in their capacity to meet their patients’ social needs, and they believe this impedes their ability to provide quality care.

This is health care’s blind side: Within the current health care system, physicians do not have the time or sufficient staff support to address patients’ social needs.

Physicians surveyed feel so strongly about the connection between social needs and good health that 3 in 4 wish the health care system would pay for the costs associated with connecting patients to services that address their social needs if a physician deems it important for their overall health. Results also revealed that, if physicians had the power to write prescriptions for social needs, they would prescribe fitness programs, nutritional food and transportation assistance. Physicians whose patients are mostly urban and low-income also wish they could write prescriptions for employment assistance, adult education and housing assistance.

We know that our zip code is more powerful than our genetic code when it comes to our health. Indeed, the conditions we face day in, day out, where we live, learn, work and play, have a greater impact on our health and life expectancy than our medical conditions and the health care we receive.

Promising models, such as Health Leads, bridge this gap by empowering health care providers to help remove the social barriers that keep people from taking the actions they need to be healthy. Such models need to continue to be invested in and evaluated. Nevertheless, more can be done. While models that address social needs are a step in the right direction, leadership and commitment from health care decision makers is required to create system-wide and lasting change.


Fenton. Health Care's Blind Side: The Overlooked Connection Between Social Needs and Good Health, Summary of Findings from a Survey of America's Physicians. Princeton, NJ: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; 2011. Available online.

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Publication year
Resource type
Issue Briefs & Reports
Social Needs/ SDH
Social Determinant of Health
Housing Quality
Housing Stability
Study design
Other Study Design