Five ways hospitals can be more socially responsible in 2024

Many of us adopt resolutions for the New Year—could hospitals do the same? Here are five ways that hospitals could become more socially responsible in the coming year, inspired by those hospitals that are already leading the way.

#1 Review financial assistance and collection policies

Does your hospital allow patients to be sued for medical debt? What about denying nonemergency care for patients with outstanding debt? Knowing your hospital’s financial assistance and collection policies can go a long way toward improving social responsibility.

All nonprofit hospitals are required to have a policy around financial assistance outlining who is eligible for free and discounted care and how they can get it. Most also have a collections policy that shows what “extraordinary collection actions” the hospital is allowed to take if patients don’t pay (like garnishing wages, suing patients, or sending debt to collections).

However, the extent to which hospitals provide free and discounted care varies widely across the country. In most states, there aren’t strict rules about who should be eligible for assistance, so it’s up to hospitals to create their own policy. Hospitals also differ in the collections actions their policy allows them to take, with some allowing for legal action, reporting debt to collection agencies, and denying nonemergency care for patients with debt.

For hospitals looking to boost their financial assistance ranking on the Lown Hospitals Index, there may be room for improvement in their policies. Hospitals should examine their policies with the following questions in mind:

  • Are the eligibility requirements broad and generous?
  • Are patients being adequately screened for eligibility?
  • Is the application short and easy to understand?
  • Are there additional asset tests or residency requirements?
  • Are aggressive collection actions allowed?

Reviewing these policies can help hospitals understand where they could expand eligibility or streamline the process to get aid to more needy patients.

#2 Invest in the social drivers that affect upstream health 

Clinicians know that most of what determines their patients’ health happens before patients even step foot in the hospital. Things like environment, education, neighborhood safety, housing, and nutrition make up the social drivers of health. Hospitals and healthcare systems can make a huge impact on community health by investing in these factors, even if they’re outside the hospital walls.

Some hospitals have been incredibly innovative in their programming around social drivers of health, including:

On the Lown Index, we measure hospital spending on community investments like these. (See which hospitals are already at the top in your state!)

#3 Become champions for high-value care 

Overuse of medical services with no or little clinical benefit is unfortunately prevalent at U.S. hospitals. A recent report from the Lown Index found that hospitals delivered nearly 230,000 unnecessary coronary stents to Medicare patients from 2019-2021.

There are many things that hospitals can do to protect their patients from exposure to harm and unnecessary cost. For example, when Children’s Hospital of Colorado found out they had a very high rate of CT scan for abdominal pain (which is not recommended by pediatric specialty organizations), they created a plan of action. They implemented a new protocol to get surgeon consultation in the ER before a CT scan is ordered, to decide whether or not patients were at high risk of appendicitis. Within two years, the hospital cut its rate of these CT scans from 45% to 10%.

Hospitals will soon be able to evaluate their CT radiation dose compared to their peers, using CMS’ new metric on radiation quality. For hospitals that are using too high of a dose, they can undertake initiatives to educate clinicians about reducing their dose to avoid exposing patients to unnecessary harm. 

#4 Evaluate new AI tools with an eye toward equity and overuse

Artificial intelligence (AI) tools are taking off in health care, and hospitals are no exception. AI tools have the potential to improve patient outcomes, reduce administrative burden, and even improve health equity. For example, a recent study found that a new AI algorithm has the potential to identify knee pain in Black patients with osteoarthritis more accurate than radiologists. 

However, experts are also sounding the call about the potential for AI tools to exacerbate existing patterns of racial inequity and overuse in health care. For example, a study of AI diagnostic algorithms for chest radiography found that underserved populations (which are less represented in the data used to train the AI) were less likely to be diagnosed using the AI tool. And a Lancet study testing AI breast cancer screening found that AI-supported screening detected nearly double the number of (DCIS) low-grade cases than standard screening. 

Given these concerns, hospitals should take steps to ensure that their implementation of AI tools is socially responsible. Here’s how some hospitals are already doing this:

  • NorthShore – Edward-Elmhurst Health and AVIA are working together to develop a generative AI plan for healthcare systems that focuses on the risks and opportunities of AI as well as guidelines to monitor their usage and effects.
  • Hospital systems like CommonSpirit and Penn Medicine are collaborating with health systems and other organizations to screen for, identify, and eliminate biases within EHRs. 
  • Houston Methodist Hospital created iBRISK, a breast cancer risk assessment tool supported by AI. iBRISK takes into account patients’ demographics and medical history before recommending future diagnostic testing. By targeting screening toward patients with the highest risk, we improve the chance of benefit from screening.

#5 Prioritize equitable pay for employees 

It’s no secret that a happy, healthy staff makes for better patient care. Improving employee satisfaction is easier said than done, but ensuring equitable pay for all employees is a good start. 

Compared to other nonprofits, hospitals are outliers in terms of how much they pay their CEOs. Lown Index data on pay equity found that nonprofit hospital CEOs are paid eight times the rate of hospital workers without advanced medical degrees, on average. Creating incentives for CEO pay based not only on financial performance but patient outcomes, community investment, and other social responsibility metrics, would help align incentives for leadership with those of the community.

Committing to providing a living wage for all hospital workers would be an incredible boost for financial security within the community. The median wage for health care support, service, and direct care jobs was $13.48 an hour in 2019. California took a giant step by raising the minimum wage for healthcare workers to $25 an hour. Because hospitals are often one of the largest employers in a region, raising the minimum wage helps to support local economic development, and could even improve community health

We’re envisioning a 2024 full of innovation and collaboration in the hospital space, and these socially responsible hospitals give us hope that this vision will become a reality. We hope you will join us next year as we continue to build the movement for socially responsible healthcare.