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The Synergy of Clinical and Social Care in the US

Eric Reinhart, a thoughtful commentator on the need for patient-oriented transformation of our health care system, now broadens his (and our) view to the critical need to also address fundamental social-economic needs.

May 11, 2024

Money as Medicine – Clinicism, Cash Transfers, and the Political-Economic Determinants of Health
New England Journal of Medicine
April 10, 2024
By Eric Reinhart

[HJM bolding]

Clinicism is the reduction of health to individualistic biomedical paradigms that overemphasize clinical perspectives and interventions (even though clinical care is estimated to account for only 10 to 20% of modifiable factors shaping health in the United States) while normalizing existing social conditions and neglecting to prioritize preventive policies that target other key drivers of health and disease. These include, for example, policies affecting labor and environmental conditions, poverty and associated housing and food insecurity, social isolation, and public infrastructures for community-building social care involving supportive interpersonal relationships. Despite its limitations, clinicism pervades US public health efforts, which are primarily led by physicians more familiar with biologic and clinical sciences than with political economy and associated social services. Many scholars, recognizing this shortcoming, have called for greater attention to social determinants of health, including research on structural violence and the causes of the causes, commercial determinants, and “capitalogenesis” of disease. Such paradigms, however, generally remain descriptive academic projects that have not been translated into prescriptive policy action and the political organizing such action requires. 

One reason for this lack of application is that scholars, university and health systems administrators, and public health officials face incentives, imposed by philanthropic funders and politicians, to abstain from foregrounding the political-economic determinants of health or insisting on specific policies to address economic inequality. In many cases, acting otherwise would entail challenging policies that have been embraced since the 1980s by both Republican and Democratic administrations that have overseen historic increases in inequality while defunding public support systems, empowering in their place private businesses or charitable organizations dependent on wealthy benefactors, and fueling the growth of an inefficient health care industry providing inequitable and limited benefits.

Though the Covid-19 pandemic laid bare the consequences on long-standing U.S. health policy norms and partisanship, it also temporarily disrupted the status quo by provoking overwhelmingly popular emergency measures that illustrated both the potential of supportive social policies to improve health and the necessity of approaching health, safety, and economic policy as intertwined. One early pandemic policy in particular, cash transfers, demonstrated the promise of a policy tool that could enable health scholars, clinicians, administrators, and public health officials to collectively overcome undue clinicism and expand health policy beyond just health care, rebuild trust in public health institutions, and directly address the political-economic determinants of health.

Beyond a staggering global death toll, one of the most concerning consequences of failed pandemic control was the rapid expansion of poverty. In 2021 alone, after three prepandemic years of annual reductions in the global poverty rate, an estimated 115 million people – nearly all in formerly colonized countries – were pushed into extreme poverty (i.e., subsisting on less than $2.15 per day), which brought the global population living in extreme poverty to nearly 700 million people. But in the United States, where estimates suggest that poverty was the fourth-leading risk factor for death, the pandemic led to sharp reductions in poverty owing to the expansion of eligibility for public aid in addition to emergency cash disbursements to large swaths of the population. Federal household subsidies in 2021 – nearly $570 billion in pandemic stimulus checks plus improved unemployment insurance and child tax credits – led to a historic 50% reduction in the child poverty rate and a 15% decrease in overall poverty.

The changes to the child tax credit that contributed to this shift were particularly effective – and instructive for health policy. Suddenly, the lowest-income families were receiving the same government benefits afforded to middle-class families, bureaucratic obstacles were largely eliminated, and more cash was directed to the households and local economies that most needed it. For many of the 40 million U.S. residents living in poverty, this provision of public support in the form of basic income didn’t merely reduce poverty; it had a dramatic stabilizing effect and substantially improved their health and experience of everyday life.

Financial insecurity is a major driver behind cycles of poor mental health, disease, violence, crime, and incarceration – all of which, in turn, further entrench poverty, destabilize families, undercut public health and childhood education, and constrain people’s life opportunities. Historically, most U.S. policymakers have ignored this reality, constructing one of the most insufficient, inefficient, and onerous welfare systems among wealthy countries, exacerbating instability for people living in poverty and making receipt of public support unnecessarily restrictive, time-consuming, unpredictable, and stigmatizing. This failure has wide ranging consequences for the country as a whole, affecting everything from public health to economic growth and the declining competitiveness of the U.S. workforce.

Guaranteed basic income, by providing financial predictability to people and families who have been deprived of it, has the potential to mitigate much of the economic, medical, social, and psychological harm that inadequate U.S. welfare programs alongside tax breaks for the rich have enforced. People who care about addressing poverty should stop talking about basic income as simply an antipoverty policy. Investments in such programs also return major benefits for shared public health, public safety, and collective economic prosperity – population-wide gains that improve quality of life for everyone. We can’t effectively build any of them without building all three.

Many studies have shown that cash-transfer programs lead to substantial reductions in homicide, assault, intimate partner violence, property crimes, recidivism, and overdose deaths.

As the popularity of federal initiatives such as Social Security, child tax credits, earned income tax credits, and unemployment insurance reflects, the United States has a long history and widespread support for using cash transfers to mitigate and prevent financial hardship. The truth is that cash-transfer programs don’t represent a radical shift from conventional US policy; they’re a continuation and expansion of what have long been America’s most effective and popular government programs. What has often been missing from public perception of such programs is recognition of their importance not only for their direct beneficiaries, but also for everyone else.

Delivering effective clinical care and ensuring robust public systems for social care are interdependent and synergistic projects. It is difficult to care for patients as effectively as possible without addressing root political-economic causes of sickness and death, from poverty, malnutrition, homelessness, and mass incarceration to health care exclusion. In the United States, medical institutions have often neglected this reality and sometimes even leveraged their political influence to oppose investments in social care that they saw as threats to their economic interests. This attitude has undermined both public health and the medical profession, which is now facing a related crisis of demoralization and attrition. For the sake of the profession and our patients, it is time to reassert a concept of medicine that goes beyond the clinic alone to advance supportive social policies without which our work cannot succeed.


Comment by: Don McCanne

At Health Justice Monitor we have previously visited the astute writing of Eric Reinhart, once in JAMA when he explained why physicians need to become a progressive force in transforming our health care system and again when he explained in the New York Times how physicians are being demoralized by forces primarily interested in extracting profits from the health care system.

We now revisit his writing in the New England Journal of Medicine wherein he makes the very important political-social-economic case that the health of individuals and society is not just the result of mere “clinicsim” or the overemphasis of clinical perspectives and interventions, but rather should be the result of delivering effective clinical care synergistically with robust public systems for social care, with guaranteed basic income and other appropriate, proven cash-transfer programs that result in major benefits for shared public health, public safety, and collective economic prosperity – population-wide gains that improve quality of life for everyone.

We are spending a lot of money on health care but we are falling terribly short. So what lessons can we learn by applying this “social” approach of Reinhart?

We should include everyone.

It should be affordable for each individual.

The services should be comprehensive and accessible.

The stewards should design it to provide needed services for the people, not profits for investors.

Essentially it would be a social program designed by the people’s stewards to serve all of the people.

About the Commentator, Don McCanne

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Don McCanne is a retired family practitioner who dedicated the 2nd phase of his career to speaking and writing extensively on single payer and related issues. He served as Physicians for a National Health Program president in 2002 and 2003, then as Senior Health Policy Fellow. For two decades, Don wrote "Quote of the Day", a daily health policy update which inspired HJM.

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