The Adoption of Social Determinants of Health Documentation in Clinical Settings

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Objective: To understand the frequency of social determinants of health (SDOH) diagnosis codes (Z-codes) within the electronic health record (EHR) for patients with prediabetes and diabetes and examine factors influencing the adoption of SDOH documentation in clinical care.

Study design: An explanatory sequential mixed methods design first examined the use of Z-codes within the EHR and qualitatively examined barriers to documenting SDOH. Data were integrated and interpreted using a joint display. This research was informed by the Framework for Dissemination and Utilization of Research for Health Care Policy and Practice.


Principal findings: Patients with social needs were disproportionately older, female, Black, uninsured, living in low-income and high unemployment neighborhoods, and had a higher number of hospitalizations, obesity, prediabetes, and type 2 diabetes than those without a Z-code. Z-codes were not frequently used in the EHR (<1% of patients), and there was an overall lack of congruence between quantitative and qualitative results related to the prevalence of social needs. Providers faced barriers at multiple levels (e.g., individual-level: discomfort discussing social needs; organizational-level: limited time, competing priorities) for documenting SDOH and identified strategies to improve documentation.

Conclusions: Providers recognized the impact of SDOH on patient health and had positive perceptions of screening for and documenting social needs. Implementation strategies are needed to improve systematic documentation.

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