Health Leads turns a typical prescription pad on its head by allowing doctors to connect patients with resources like food, safe shelter, and health insurance.

Credit: calvinnivlac / Flickr Creative Commons

Rethinking The Prescription Pad

September 13, 2013


Imagine you're a doctor about to write a prescription for a patient, but you realize what she really needs is food, or heat, or a safe place to live. For years, you had two options, says Rebecca Onie, co-founder and CEO of Health Leads. You could either adopt a "don't ask, don't tell policy" and look the other way, or spend valuable time away from clinical care addressing social needs. (In fact, one survey conducted at Bellevue hospital found that for every fifteen minute visit with a patient, doctors spent 9.2 minutes addressing social – and not medical – needs.)

That’s where Health Leads comes in. Founded by Onie and Dr. Barry Zuckerman of the Boston Medical Center, Health Leads aims to take the typical prescription pad and turn it on its head. Instead of antibiotics or medications, Health Leads “prescribes” resources like nutritious food, safe housing, and health insurance by connecting patients with available resources in their communities.

Instead of prescribing medication after a patient falls sick, Health Leads seeks to address basic needs in preventative care.
Photo Credit: rhondapalooza / Flickr Creative Commons

What does a Health Leads “prescription” look like in practice? Onie cites the case of a Baltimore family with a young child who suffered from frequent asthma attacks. After discovering the family was running out of food by the end of each month and living in a moldy apartment, Health Leads was able to enroll the family in state Medicaid, connect them with food assistance programs, and enroll the mother in job training so they could eventually move out of the apartment. 

Health Leads seeks to complement, not replace, conventional health care - and many hospitals and other providers are beginning to sign on.
Photo Credit: DigiDreamGrafix / Flickr Creative Commons

In this case, Health Leads was able to bridge the gap between the asthma medication needed to get the patient healthy and the basic resources the family needed to stay healthy. Indeed, that’s exactly the role Onie believes Health Leads should play: not a substitute for conventional care, but a complement to it.  The idea is beginning to catch on. While much of the funding for Health Leads comes from philanthropic sources, increasingly, hospitals and health care services are beginning to pay for the service. At a time when the future of health care in America is in flux, Onie believes building these partnerships is a necessary step in getting people healthy -- and keeping them that way. As she says, thinking outside of the box is key: “We’re going to have to go beyond what we’ve traditionally understood as the health care provider." 

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