How medical records and data sharing agreements bridge gaps in health care and homelessness services

This story is from The Pulse, a weekly health and science podcast.

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When someone is homeless, or on the brink of losing their housing, they often receive support services at shelters and from community organizations that work on housing issues.

When they need medical care, they typically must visit hospitals or clinics.

 Often, people need both types of services — housing and medical care — at the same time. But there’s a major problem: these two different systems designed to help people don’t communicate, which creates issues for providers working with these vulnerable populations.

 “The people who work in those systems didn’t know each other,” said Beth Sandor, chief program manager of Community Solutions, a national nonprofit working to solve homelessness. “They didn’t understand each other’s language.”

When systems operate in silos, Sandor said it makes it tough for people to navigate their way toward the care they need.

“It’s like a game of Chutes and Ladders,” she said. “You complete two steps and then you get brought back to the beginning again. It can be demoralizing for people, but maybe more importantly than that, it could be deadly for people.”

In 2020, Community Solutions’ Built For Zero initiative launched a three-year national pilot project to identify and address gaps in health care for people who are homeless — and a lack of data sharing and medical records has turned out to be part of the issue.

Records and data about a person’s medical history are supposed to provide important background information for treatment and care. It helps providers keep track of test results, what medications a patient is taking and other health issues they might be facing. 

But because health systems and homeless response programs don’t interface directly with each other, it becomes challenging to piece together a patient’s medical history for someone who may lack a permanent address, who may receive sporadic care at different facilities.

One outcome of the pilot project has been the creation of a blueprint for systems to share data in a way that helps both systems provide better continuity of care for the same population of people they serve.

  • February 5, 2024
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