Clinician Experiences with Screening for Social Needs in Primary Care

J Am Board Fam Med. 2018 May-Jun;31(3):351-363. doi: 10.3122/jabfm.2018.03.170419.


Background: Despite clear evidence demonstrating the influence of social determinants on health, whether and how clinicians should address these determinants remain unclear. We aimed to understand primary care clinicians' experiences of administering a social needs screening instrument.

Methods: Using a prospective, observational design, we identified patients living in communities with lower education and income seen by 17 clinicians from 12 practices in northern Virginia. Before office visits, patients completed social needs surveys, which probed about their quality of life, education, housing, finances, substance use, transportation, social connections, physical activity, and food access. Clinicians then reviewed the completed surveys with patients. Concurrently, clinicians participated in a series of learning collaboratives to consider how to address social needs as part of care and completed diary entries about how knowing the patient's social needs influenced care after seeing each patient.

Results: Out of a total of 123 patients, 106 (86%) reported a social need. Excluding physical activity, 71% reported a social need, although only 3% wanted help. Clinicians reported that knowing the patient had a social need changed care delivery in 23% of patients and helped improve interactions with and knowledge of the patient in 53%. Clinicians reported that assessing social needs is difficult and resource intensive and that there were insufficient resources to help patients with identified needs.

Conclusions: Clinicians reported that knowing patients' social needs changed what they did and improved communication for many patients. However, more evidence is needed regarding the benefit of social needs screening in primary care before widespread implementation.

Keywords: Needs Assessment; Primary Health Care; Prospective Studies; Quality of Life; Surveys and Questionnaires; Virginia.

Publication types

  • Observational Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Communication
  • Female
  • Health Services Needs and Demand / statistics & numerical data*
  • Health Services Needs and Demand / trends
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Needs Assessment / statistics & numerical data*
  • Physicians, Primary Care / statistics & numerical data
  • Primary Health Care / organization & administration*
  • Primary Health Care / statistics & numerical data
  • Prospective Studies
  • Quality of Life*
  • Social Determinants of Health*
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Surveys and Questionnaires / statistics & numerical data
  • Virginia
  • Young Adult