Incorporating Social Determinants of Health in Electronic Health Records: A Qualitative Study of Perspectives on Current Practices among Top Vendors


Background: Social determinants of health (SDH) are increasingly seen as important to understanding patient health and identifying appropriate interventions to improve health outcomes, in what is a complex interplay between health system, community, and individual level factors.

Objectives: To investigate the development of software products that allow health care providers to identify and address patients SDH in health care settings, we conducted interviews with six electronic health records (EHRs) vendors with large market shares in both ambulatory and inpatient settings. We conducted thematic analysis of the interviews to a) identify their motivations to develop such software products, b) describe their products and uses, and c) identify facilitators and challenges to collection and use of SDH data—through their products or otherwise—either at the point of care or in population health interventions.

Findings: Our findings indicate that vendor systems and their functionalities are influenced by client demand and initiative, federal initiatives, and the vendors’ strategic vision about opportunities in the health care system. Among the small sample of vendors with large market shares, SDH is a new area for growth, and the vendors range in the number and sophistication of their SDH-related products. To enable better data analytics, population health management, and interoperability of SDH data, vendors recognized the need for more standardization of SDH performance measures across various federal and state programs, better mapping of SDH measures to multiple types of codes, and development of more codes for all SDH measures of interest.

Conclusion: Vendors indicate they are actively developing products to facilitate the collection and use of SDH data for their clients, and are seeking solutions to data standardization and interoperability challenges through internal product decisions and collaboration with policymakers. Lacking policy standards around SDH data, product-specific decisions may end up being de-facto policies given the market shares of particular vendors. However, commercial vendors appear ready to collaboratively discuss policy solutions, such as standards or guidelines with each other, health care systems, and government agencies in order to further promote integration of SDH data into the standard of care for all health systems.


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