Intersecting systemic and personal barriers to accessing social services: Qualitative interviews in Northern California
BMC Public Health
Background: Addressing social risks in the clinical setting can increase patient confidence in the availability of community resources and may contribute to the development of a therapeutic alliance which has been correlated with treatment adherence and improved quality of life in mental health contexts. It is not well understood what barriers patients face when trying to connect to community resources that help address social risks. This paper aims to describe patient-reported barriers to accessing and using social needs-related resources to which they are referred by a program embedded in a safety net primary care clinic.
Methods: This is a qualitative assessment of patient-reported barriers to accessing and using social needs assistance programs. We conducted over 100 in-depth interviews with individuals in Northern California who participated in a navigation and referral program to help address their social needs and describe a unique framework for understanding how policies and systems intersect with an individual’s personal life circumstances.
Results: Individuals described two distinct domains of barriers: 1) systems-level barriers that were linked to the inequitable distribution of and access to resources, and 2) personal-level barriers that focused on unique limitations experienced by each patient and impacted the way that they accessed services in their communities. While these barriers often overlapped or manifested in similar outcomes, this distinction was key because the systems barriers were not things that individuals could control or overcome through their own initiative or by increasing individual capacity.
Conclusions: Respondents describe intersecting systemic and personal barriers that compound patients’ challenges to getting their social needs met; this includes both a picture of the inequitable distribution of and access to social services and a profile of the limitations created by individual life histories. These results speak to the need for structural changes to improve adequacy, availability, and accessibility of social needs resources. These findings highlight the need for advocacy to address systems barriers, especially the stigma that is faced by people who struggle with a variety of health and social issues, and investment in incentives to strengthen relationships between health care settings and social service agencies.