The connection between different aspects of our health is more evident than ever. The pandemic highlighted the ways in which physical mental health and physical health are intertwined—and recent research shows that ongoing stress around the economy affects mental and physical health as well.
This interconnectedness means that even in the face of inflationary pressures, rising medical costs and declining household savings, health providers and systems have a unique opportunity to help improve people’s economic health by expanding the cycle of care beyond traditional medical treatment plans. Already adept at incorporating innovations that impact patient care, the healthcare industry can borrow from the fintech playbook to create and implement innovative solutions that address patient finances by reducing the cost of care or creating more flexible ways to pay.
But as with medical conditions, the relationship between money and health is deep and varied with many different drivers.
The Financial Health Connection
Financial health is achieved when individuals and families are prepared to respond to and thrive in their day-to-day financial lives, seasonal financial shocks such as unexpected medical events, and opportunities.
Poor financial health can lead to stress or forgoing treatment that has negative physical or mental health consequences. Conversely, good physical and mental health can improve our financial prospects through fewer sick days and a better ability to concentrate.
Research also shows that economic health is a better predictor of physical and mental health outcomes than income alone, and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on marginalized communities further confirms this.
Social determinants of health
Consider medical debt, a growing financial concern in America that clearly demonstrates this link. One in five households in the U.S. has medical debt, the leading cause of bankruptcy in the country.
Often unexpectedly, the financial disruption and devastation caused by medical debt can harm physical and mental health as well as social well-being. It undermines people’s ability to pay for basic needs like food or housing, avoid credit card debt, save, and pursue education or career plans. This can lead to debt collection calls, wage garnishments and a drop in credit scores – all negative effects on financial health.
But medical debt also affects health. People with medical debt have three times the rate of mental health conditions such as anxiety, stress and depression. They are also more likely to forego care because of cost, leading to worse health conditions and higher bills in the event of a future crisis. Unexpected health costs lead to debt, which worsens health, creating a vicious interdependence that is difficult to break.
Medical debt and financial health are the main social determinants of health in general, but more can be done. For example, there is a huge opportunity for health system players to go further upstream and address financial health as the primary driver of immediate physical security needs such as housing, food, and transportation.
Our recent exploration of medical debt, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, sought to understand the role different players in the health ecosystem can play in reducing or resolving medical debt. We found—no surprise—that the complex and overlapping drivers of medical debt require a more collaborative approach among policymakers, hospital systems, insurers and employers.
Help consumers make more informed decisions, by working together to better match financial assistance and benefits to consumer needs; And by proactively identifying and supporting at-risk patients, these organizations can quickly and effectively reduce the negative effects of social determinants like medical debt.
Innovation, Collaboration and Impact
Although creating this change will take time, there are lessons learned from the fintech sector. There, innovators leveraged technology to better understand consumers, establish measurement standards, and then connect data to and from legacy systems. These institutions ultimately helped advance financial inclusion by embracing the basic premise that what is good for consumers is also good for business.
Similarly, we must align healthcare and financial service providers, policy makers, employers, insurers and innovators around a central promise to do good at the intersection of physical, mental and economic health. Businesses that support the health and well-being of their employees and customers along with their financial health will earn greater loyalty, trust and community reputation.
Technology innovators also have a role to play in bridging the gap between health and financial health. The growing embrace of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) in both the health and financial sectors may provide an opportunity.
Tools that assess real-time, data-driven observations of our financial behaviors in concert with our health conditions can help identify new connections and opportunities for treatment. For example, what if a person’s wearable device reports reduced sleep and stomach upset on the same few days each month? AI will notice this trend and scan for the cause, identifying those recurring days that align with monthly car notes and regularly low bank balances. An automated wallet can change scheduled dates to better align with available funds, helping to reduce stress and digestive issues compared to spending money on doctor visits and medications.
Of course, this kind of approach requires big-picture thinking and deep collaboration between fintech and healthtech innovators to navigate complex issues such as mismatches in data measurement or privacy and ownership in data or racial bias. And while there’s plenty of room for technological innovation, tech alone won’t solve all of our problems. There still needs to be a human element to help consumers make informed decisions about their health and wealth.
Regardless, the foundation is being laid for understanding how economic health is one of many drivers that influence better patient outcomes. Now, we must come together as disparate industries around a common understanding of the challenge, the interconnectedness of its origins and an agreement to change the status quo.