Menu Beats Screening for Getting Patients Help

Screenings may not be the way to get needed resources to children and their caregivers, according to new research presented at the 2024 annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies on May 4.

Caregivers and parents who were asked if they wanted assistance in several areas of need, including transportation and childcare, were nearly twice as likely to say they wanted such help than those who received a screening on current hardships. Generally, each questionnaire is administered in front of their children in primary care or pediatric hospital settings.

“Families have a lot of concern about being seen a different way by their healthcare team, being seen as unfit, and having child protective services involved in their childcare for issues related to poverty,” said Danielle Cullen, MD, a pediatric emergency medicine specialist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Danielle Cullen, MD

Cullen and her colleagues analyzed data from nearly 4000 caregivers of children up to age 21 at emergency departments or primary care clinics at CHOP between 2021 and 2023.

Caregivers were randomly assigned to one of three arms — screening with a version of WE CARE (Well Child Care, Evaluation, Community Resources, Advocacy, Referral, Education), use of an online menu of options for help in areas like housing, or neither approach.

Caregivers in all three arms received a map of resources and a follow-up text from a resource navigator to assist them as needed.

Nearly 40% of caregivers who presented with the digital menu said they wanted resources compared with 29% of those who were screened (P < .001). Non-native English speakers given the menu were 2.5 times more likely to say yes to resources compared with those who were screened.

“We need to be thoughtful about these mandates to screen for social determinants of health: It’s not that straightforward,” said Esther K. Chung, MD, a pediatrician and professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington Medicine in Seattle, who was not involved in the study. “What we’re getting from this study is that patients want choice, and the menu provides them choice.”

photo of Esther K. Chung, MD
Esther K. Chung, MD

Cullen said the menu option allows caregivers to make choices based on their priorities and not on whether they meet the screening thresholds for need.

While some health clinics utilize tablet forms for screenings to offer more privacy with questions, asking direct questions about income, food insecurity, and housing stability can be stigmatizing, Cullen said.

“Screening positive for social risk doesn’t mean that you actually want resources, and on the flip side, the literature shows that about half of the people who screen negative want resources,” she said.

Cullen and her team also conducted follow-up interviews with caregivers and found many feared that their clinician would assume a medical condition was connected to living conditions. They also had concerns about insurance companies gaining access to the data and using it to deny coverage or raise costs.

Spanish-speaking caregivers cited fears about their immigration status, experiences of discrimination, and language barriers when trying to access resources.

Participants said a few key strategies could make screening less intimidating, such as abstaining from screening during a serious medical visit, asking for consent to record answers in medical records, and communicating in an empathetic manner.

“Some families are a bit surprised when we ask about things like housing and food insecurity, but I think as long as we contextualize it, we can minimize the stigma associated with it,” Chung said. “That takes quite a bit of nuance and skill.”

The study was funded by the William T. Grant Foundation and the Emergency Medicine Foundation. The authors reported no disclosures.

Brittany Vargas is a medicine, mental health, and wellness journalist.

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