The connection between different facets of our health is more obvious than ever. The pandemic highlighted the ways decreased physical mental health and physical health are intertwined –and recent research shows that ongoing stressors around finances also impact mental and physical health.
This interconnectedness means that even in the face of inflationary pressures, rising medical costs and dwindling household savings, health providers and systems have a unique opportunity to help improve people’s financial health by extending their cycle of care beyond traditional medical treatment plans. Already skilled at incorporating innovations impacting patient care, the healthcare industry can borrow from the fintech playbook to create and implement innovative solutions that address patient finances by lowering the cost of care or creating more flexible ways to pay.
But just as with medical conditions, the connection between money and health is deep and varied with many different drivers.
The Financial Health Connection
Financial Health is achieved when individuals and families can manage their day-to-day financial lives, weather financial shocks such as unexpected medical events, and are poised to pursue opportunities and thrive.
Poor financial health can lead to stress or skipped treatments that have negative physical or mental health consequences. Conversely, good physical and mental health can improve our financial prospects through fewer sick days and better ability to focus.
Research also shows that financial health is a better predictor of physical and mental health outcomes than income alone, and the disproportionate impacts COVID-19 has had on marginalized communities further validates this.
Social Determinants of Health
Consider medical debt, a spiraling financial concern in America that clearly demonstrates this link. With one in five U.S. households holding medical debt, it is the leading cause of bankruptcy in the country.
Often unexpected, the financial disruption and ruin caused by medical debt can harm physical and mental health as well as social well-being. It impairs people’s ability to pay for basic necessities like food or housing, avoid credit card debt, save, and pursue education or career plans. It can lead to debt collection calls, wage garnishment and a drop in credit scores – all negative impacts to financial health.
But medical debt also carries health implications. People with medical debt have triple the rate of mental health conditions such as anxiety, stress and depression. They are also more likely to forgo care because of costs, leading to worsening health conditions and possible larger bills in the future if crisis strikes. Unexpected health costs leading to debt, which then drives worsening health, creates a vicious interdependency that becomes increasingly hard to break.
Medical debt and financial health more generally are key social determinants of health, but more can be done. For example, there is an enormous opportunity for health system players to to move further upstream and address financial health as a primary driver of immediate material 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 could play in tamping down or resolving medical debt. We found – no surprise – that the complex and overlapping drivers of medical debt require a more collaborative approach between policymakers, hospital systems, insurers, and employers.
By working together to better align financial assistance and benefits with consumer needs, help consumers make more informed decisions; and proactively identify and support at-risk patients, these organizations can more quickly and effectively reduce the negative impacts of social determinants like medical debt.
Innovation, Collaboration and Impact
While it will take time to create this change, there are lessons learned from the fintech sector. There, innovators leveraged technology to more quickly understand consumers, establish measurement standards and then connect data from and with legacy systems. These organizations ultimately helped advance financial inclusion by embracing the underlying premise that what is good for consumers is also good for business.
Similarly, we must align healthcare and financial services providers, policymakers, employers, insurers and innovators around the central promise of doing well by doing good at the intersection of physical, mental, and financial health. Businesses that support the health and wellbeing alongside the financial health of their employees and customers 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 fields could provide one opportunity.
Tools that assess real-time, data-based observations of our financial behaviors in concert with our health conditions could help identify new connections and opportunities for treatment. For example, what if a person’s wearable device reports reduced sleep and irritable stomach issues for the same few days every month? AI would notice this trend and scan for causality, recognizing those recurring days aligned with a monthly car note and regularly low bank balances. An automated wallet could then shift the due date to better align with available funds, helping to reduce stress and digestive problems versus a visit to the doctor and money on medication.
Of course, this type of approach requires big picture thinking and a deep collaboration between fintech and healthtech innovators addressing complex issues such as a mismatch in data measurements or how to navigate privacy and ownership or racial bias in data. And while there is generous room for technology innovation, tech alone will not solve all our problems. There still needs to be a human element of supporting consumers in making informed decisions about their health and wealth.
Regardless, the groundwork is being laid to understand how financial health is one of the many drivers influencing 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.