For over a decade as a doctor, I've cared for homeless veterans, for working-class families. I've cared for people who live and work in conditions that can be hard, if not harsh, and that work has led me to believe that we need a fundamentally different way of looking at healthcare. We simply need a healthcare system that moves beyond just looking at the symptoms that bring people into clinics, but instead, actually, is able to look and improve health where it begins. And where health begins is not in the four walls of a doctor's office, but where we live and where we work, where we eat, sleep, learn and play, where we spend the majority of our lives.
So what does this different approach to healthcare look like, an approach that can improve health where it begins? To illustrate this, I'll tell you about Veronica. Veronica was the 17th patient out of my 26-patient day at that clinic in South Central Los Angeles. She came into our clinic with a chronic headache. This headache had been going on for a number of years, and this particular episode was very, very troubling. In fact, three weeks before she came to visit us for the first time, she went to an emergency room in Los Angeles. The emergency room doctors said, "We've run some tests, Veronica. The results are normal, so here's some pain medication." And follow up with a primary care doctor, "But if the pain persists or if it worsens, then come on back."
Veronica followed those standard instructions, and she went back. She went back not just once, but twice more. In the three weeks before Veronica met us, she went to the emergency room three times. She went back and forth, in and out of hospitals and clinics, just like she had done in years past, trying to seek relief but still coming up short. Veronica came to our clinic, and despite all these encounters with healthcare professionals, Veronica was still sick.
When she came to our clinic though, we tried a different approach. Our approach started with our medical assistant, someone who had a GED-level training but knew the community. Our medical assistant asked some routine questions. She asked, "What's your chief complaint?" "Headache." "Let's get your vital signs"—measure your blood pressure and your heart rate, but let's also ask something equally as vital to Veronica and a lot of patients like her in South Los Angeles. "Veronica, can you tell me about where you live? Specifically, about your housing conditions? Do you have mold? Do you have water leaks? Do you have roaches in your home?" Turns out, Veronica said yes to three of those things: roaches, water leaks, mold. I received that chart in hand, reviewed it, and I turned the handle on the door and I entered the room.
You should understand that Veronica, like a lot of patients that I have the privilege of caring for, is a dignified person, a formidable presence, a personality that's larger than life, but here she was, doubled over in pain sitting on my exam table. Her head, clearly throbbing, was resting in her hands. She lifted her head up, and I saw her face. I said hello, and then I immediately noticed something across the bridge of her nose, a crease in her skin. In medicine, we call that crease the allergic salute. It's usually seen among children who have chronic allergies. It comes from chronically rubbing one's nose up and down, trying to get rid of those allergy symptoms, and yet, here was Veronica, a grown woman, with the same telltale sign of allergies. A few minutes later in asking Veronica some questions and examining her and listening to her, I said, "Veronica, I think I know what you have. I think you have chronic allergies. And I think you have migraine headaches and some sinus congestion, and I think all of those are related to where you live." She looked a little bit relieved, because for the first time, she had a diagnosis, but I said, "Veronica, now let's talk about your treatment. We're going to order some medications for your symptoms, but I also want to refer you to a specialist, if that's okay."
Now, specialists are a little hard to find in South Central Los Angeles, so she gave me this look, like, "Really?" And I said, "Veronica, actually, the specialist I'm talking about is someone I call a community health worker, someone who, if it's okay with you, can come to your home and try to understand what's going on with those water leaks and that mold, try to help you manage those conditions in your housing that I think are causing your symptoms. And if required, that specialist might refer you to another specialist that we call a public interest lawyer, because it might be that your landlord isn't making the fixes he's required to make."
Veronica came back in a few months later. She agreed to all of those treatment plans. She told us that her symptoms had improved by 90 percent. She was spending more time at work and with her family and less time shuttling back and forth between the emergency rooms of Los Angeles. Veronica had improved remarkably. Her sons, one of whom had asthma, were no longer as sick as they used to be. She had gotten better, and not coincidentally, Veronica's home was better, too.
What was it about this different approach we tried that led to better care, fewer visits to the E.R., better health? Well, quite simply, it started with that question: "Veronica, where do you live?" But more importantly, it was that we put in place a system that allowed us to routinely ask questions, like Veronica and hundreds more like her, about the conditions that mattered in her community, about where health, and unfortunately, sometimes illness does begin in places like South L.A. In that community, substandard housing and food insecurity are the major conditions that we as a clinic had to be aware of, but in other communities, it could be transportation barriers, obesity, access to parks, gun violence.
The important thing is we put in place a system that worked, and it's an approach that I call an upstream approach. It's a term many of you are familiar with. It comes from a parable that's very common in the public health community. This is a parable of three friends. Imagine that you're one of these three friends who come to a river. It's a beautiful scene, but it's shattered by the cries of a child, and actually, several children, in need of rescue in the water. So you do—hopefully what everybody would do—you jump right in along with your friends. The first friend says, "I'm going to rescue those who are about to drown, those at most risk of falling over the waterfall." The second friend says, "You know what? I'm going to build a raft. I'm going to make sure that fewer people need to end up at the waterfall's edge. Let's usher more people to safety by building this raft, coordinating those branches together." Over time, they're successful, but not really as much as they want to be. More people slip through, and they finally look up and they see that their third friend is nowhere to be seen. They finally spot her. She's in the water. She's swimming away from them upstream, rescuing children as she goes, and they shout to her, "Where are you going? There are children here to save." And she says back, "I'm gonna find out who or what is throwing these children in the water." In healthcare, we have that first friend—we have the specialist. We have the trauma surgeon, the ICU nurse, the E.R. doctors. We have those people that are vital rescuers, people you want to be there when you're in dire straits. We also know that we have the second friend—we have that raft-builder. That's the primary care clinician, people on the care team who are there to manage your chronic conditions, your diabetes, your hypertension, there to give you your annual checkups, there to make sure your vaccines are up to date, but also there to make sure that you have a raft to sit on and usher yourself to safety. But while that's also vital and very necessary, what we're missing is that third friend. We don't have enough of that upstreamist. The upstreamists are the healthcare professionals who know that health does begin where we live and work and play, but beyond that awareness is able to mobilize the resources to create the system in their clinics and in their hospitals that really does start to approach that, to connect people to the resources they need outside the four walls of the clinic.
Now you might ask, and it's a very obvious question that a lot of colleagues in medicine ask, "Doctors and nurses thinking about transportation and housing? Shouldn't we just provide pills and procedures and just make sure we focus on the task at hand?" Certainly, rescuing people at the water's edge is important enough work. Who has the time? I would argue though, that if we were to use science as our guide, that we would find an upstream approach is absolutely necessary. Scientists now know that the living and working conditions that we all are part of have more than twice the impact on our health than does our genetic code. And living and working conditions, the structures of our environments, the ways in which our social fabric is woven together, and the impact those have on our behaviors, all together, those have more than five times the impact on our health than do all the pills and procedures administered by doctors and hospitals combined. All together, living and working conditions account for 60 percent of preventable death.
Let me give you an example of what this feels like. Let's say there was a company, a tech startup that came to you and said, "We have a great product. It's going to lower your risk of death from heart disease." Now, you might be likely to invest if that product was a drug or a device, but what if that product was a park? A study in the U.K., a landmark study that reviewed the records of over 40 million residents in the U.K., looked at several variables, controlled for a lot of factors, and found that when trying to adjust the risk of heart disease, one's exposure to green space was a powerful influence. The closer you were to green space, to parks and trees, the lower your chance of heart disease, and that stayed true for rich and for poor. That study illustrates what my friends in public health often say these days: that one's zip code matters more than your genetic code. We're also learning that zip code is actually shaping our genetic code. The science of epigenetics looks at those molecular mechanisms, those intricate ways in which our DNA is literally shaped. Genes turned on and off based on the exposures to the environment, to where we live and to where we work. So it's clear that these factors, these upstream issues, do matter. They matter to our health, and therefore, our healthcare professionals should do something about it. And yet, Veronica asked me perhaps the most compelling question I've been asked in a long time. In that follow-up visit, she said, "Why did none of my doctors ask about my home before? In those visits to the emergency room, I had two CAT scans, I had a needle placed in the lower part of my back to collect spinal fluid, I had nearly a dozen blood tests, I went back and forth, I saw all sorts of people in healthcare, and no one asked about my home."
The honest answer is that in healthcare, we often treat symptoms without addressing the conditions that make you sick in the first place. And there are many reasons for that, but the big three are: first, we don't pay for that. In healthcare, we often pay for volume and not value. We pay doctors and hospitals usually for the number of services they provide, but not necessarily on how healthy they make you. That leads to a second phenomenon that I call the "don't ask, don't tell" approach to upstream issues in healthcare. We don't ask about where you live and where you work, because if there's a problem there, we don't know what to tell you. It's not that doctors don't know these are important issues. In a recent survey done in the U.S. among physicians, over 1,000 physicians, 80 percent of them actually said that they know that their patients' upstream problems are as important as their health issues, as their medical problems, and yet, despite that widespread awareness of the importance of upstream issues, only one in five doctors said they had any sense of confidence to address those issues, to improve health where it begins. There's this gap between knowing that patients' lives, the context of where they live and work, matters, and the ability to do something about it in the systems in which we work.
This is a huge problem right now, because it leads them to this next question, which is, whose responsibility is it? And that brings me to that third point, that third answer to Veronica's compelling question. Part of the reason that we have this conundrum is because there are not nearly enough upstreamists in the healthcare system. There are not nearly enough of that third friend, that person who is going to find out who or what is throwing those kids in the water. Now, there are many upstreamists, and I've had the privilege of meeting many of them, in Los Angeles and in other parts of the country and around the world, and it's important to note that upstreamists sometimes are doctors, but they need not be. They can be nurses, other clinicians, care managers, social workers. It's not so important what specific degree upstreamists have at the end of their name. What's more important is that they all seem to share the same ability to implement a process that transforms their assistance, transforms the way they practice medicine. That process is a quite simple process. It's one, two and three. First, they sit down and they say let's identify the clinical problem among a certain set of patients. Let's say, for instance, let's try to help children who are bouncing in and out of the hospital with asthma. After identifying the problem, they then move on to that second step, and they say let's identify the root cause. Now, a root cause analysis, in healthcare, usually says, well, let's look at your genes. Let's look at how you're behaving. Maybe you're not eating healthy enough. Eat healthier. It's a pretty simplistic approach to root cause analyses. It turns out it doesn't really work when we just limit ourselves that worldview. The root cause analysis that an upstreamist brings to the table is to say let's look at the living and the working conditions in your life. Perhaps, for children with asthma, it's what's happening in their home, or perhaps they live close to a freeway with major air pollution that triggers their asthma. And perhaps that's what we should mobilize our resources to address, because that third element, that third part of the process, is that next critical part of what upstreamists do. They mobilize the resources to create a solution, both within the clinical system, and then by bringing in people from public health, from other sectors, lawyers, whoever is willing to play ball, let's bring in to create a solution that makes sense, to take those patients who actually have clinical problems and address their root causes together by linking them to the resources you need. It's clear to me that there are so many stories of upstreamists who are doing remarkable things. The problem is that there's just not nearly enough of them out there. By some estimates, we need one upstreamist for every 20 to 30 clinicians in the healthcare system. In the U.S., for instance, that would mean that we need 25,000 upstreamists by the year 2020. But we only have a few thousand upstreamists out there right now, by all accounts, and that's why a few years ago, my colleagues and I said, "You know what? We need to train and make more upstreamists."
So we decided to start an organization called Health Begins, and Health Begins simply does that: We train upstreamists. And there are a lot of measures that we use for our success, but the main thing that we're interested in is making sure that we're changing the sense of confidence, that "don't ask, don't tell" metric among clinicians. We're trying to make sure that clinicians, and therefore their systems that they work in, have the ability, the confidence to address the problems in the living and working conditions in our lives. We're seeing nearly a tripling of that confidence in our work.
It's remarkable, but I'll tell you the most compelling part of what it means to be working with upstreamists, to gather them together. What is most compelling is that every day, every week, I hear stories just like Veronica's. There are stories out there of Veronica and many more like her, people who are coming to the healthcare system and getting a glimpse of what it feels like to be part of something that works, a healthcare system that stops bouncing you back and forth but actually improves your health, listens to you who you are, addresses the context of your life, whether you're rich or poor or middle class.
These stories are compelling because not only do they tell us that we're this close to getting the healthcare system that we want, but that there's something that we can all do to get there. Doctors and nurses can get better at asking about the context of patients' lives, not simply because it's better bedside manner, but frankly, because it's a better standard of care. Healthcare systems and payers can start to bring in public health agencies and departments and say let's look at our data together. Let's see if we can discover some patterns in our data about our patients' lives and see if we can identify an upstream cause, and then, as importantly, can we align the resources to be able to address them? Medical schools, nursing schools, all sorts of health professional education programs can help by training the next generation of upstreamists. We can also make sure that these schools certify a backbone of the upstream approach, and that's the community health worker. We need many more of them in the healthcare system if we're truly going to have it be effective, to move from a sickcare system to a healthcare system. But finally, perhaps most importantly, what do we do? What do we do as patients? We can start by simply going to our doctors and our nurses, to our clinics, and asking, "Is there something in where I live and where I work that I should be aware of? Are there barriers to health that I'm just not aware of? And more importantly, if there are barriers that I'm surfacing, if I'm coming to you and saying I think have a problem with my apartment or at my workplace, or I don't have access to transportation, or there's a park that's way too far, so sorry doctor, I can't take your advice to go and jog, if those problems exist, then doctor, are you willing to listen? And what can we do together to improve my health where it begins?"
If we're all able to do this work, doctors and healthcare systems, payers, and all of us together, we'll realize something about health. Health is not just a personal responsibility or phenomenon. Health is a common good. It comes from our personal investment in knowing that our lives matter, the context of where we live and where we work, eat, and sleep matter. And that what we do for ourselves, we also should do for those whose living and working conditions, again, can be hard, if not harsh. We can all invest in making sure that we improve the allocation of resources upstream, but at the same time, work together and show that we can move healthcare upstream. We can improve health where it begins.