Houston, TX

University of Houston's Humana Institute to aid patients with health-harming legal needs

Sophie-Ann McCulloch

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The Humana Integrated Health System Sciences Institute at the University of Houston (Humana Institute) with The University of Houston (UH) College of Medicine are collaborating with Lone Star Circle of Care and Lone Star Legal Aid to launch a medical-legal partnership (MLP).

While food insecurity, loneliness and transportation are some more well-known social risk factors and determinants of health, patients also struggle with workplace discrimination, disability issues, inadequate housing or potential incarceration. These factors are known as health-harming legal needs (HHLNs), and through stress, can lead to serious illness. The Humana Institute, a strategic partnership between Humana, a healthcare administrator, and UH, and the extent to which partnership can help patients experiencing HHLNs.

It shows that 33 percent, which is relatively big, of low-income families, are experiencing legal problems and recent crises caused, including Hurricane Harvey. The freezing weather in February 2021, along with the Covid-19 pandemic, has aggravated these problems.

Left alone, HHLNs could lead to increased stress, anxiety, depression, and high-risk behaviors such as tobacco, alcohol and drug abuse. Longstanding stress also could affect physical conditions such as coronary artery disease, obesity, diabetes, and low birth weight babies.

"Research increasingly shows that a comprehensive approach to patient health and well-being leads to more effective, higher-quality care. At UH, we want to train future health care leaders to provide holistic, collaborative care within clinics and health systems," said Winston Liaw, MD, MPH, chair of Health Systems and Population Health Sciences at the UH College of Medicine. "Working across disciplines allows health care teams to get on the same page, see the whole picture, and provide more personalized care. We can provide this model of care by integrating our health ecosystem."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines social determinants of health (SDOH) as "conditions in the places where people live, learn, work and play that affect a wide range of health and quality-of life-risks and outcomes." Treatment for people with such conditions is complex and demanding a good health ecosystem. Patients would receive integrated and comprehensive health care when clinicians and community health providers work together.

Patients visiting the Lone Star Circle of Care's UH clinic would be given a complete screening questionnaire to identify a legal need. If a legal need is identified, the clinic connects these patients with a Lone Star Legal Aid lawyer.

Then, Lone Star Legal Aid will meet the patients to identify their legal issues dan determine what kind of legal recourse may be needed. The LSLA would refer patients ineligible for its free legal services to other legal or social service providers.

"Humana is committed to providing seamless delivery of care to our members, and addressing social determinants of health is an integral part of our business strategy," said Jay Morris, MD, JD, MBA, Humana Medical Director. "Meeting patients where they are and examining their holistic needs helps clinicians and social care workers provide them with a care plan that addresses the whole person. Thinking innovatively and creating partnerships across disciplines creates a system which can meet the needs of today's patients and provide a more equitable treatment plan. We are excited to work with our partners on this innovative and timely partnership."

The adoption, implementation, and effectiveness of MLP will continue to be researched by the UH College of Medicine and the Humana Institute while finding out the best way to connect with patients to address HHLNs and SDOHs. Through support from Humana, the researchers at UH College of Medicine will also study the connection between HHLNs and chronic disease control.

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