ASHEVILLE, N.C. – , according to a pediatric dermatologist who addressed the annual meeting of the Society for Pediatric Dermatology.
As a general principle for treating chronic skin conditions in children who are not doing well, it is reasonable to draw out information about a patient’s access to adequate housing, nutrition, and other basic needs,, of the division of pediatric and adolescent dermatology, University of California, San Diego, said at the meeting.
“We need conversations about where patients play, learn, and rest their heads at night,” said Dr. Hightower, who conducts research in this area. Fundamental components of well-being, such as stable housing and secure access to nutrition “are inseparable” from a child’s health, he noted.
“What are the stakes?” he asked. For many children, these factors might mean the difference between effective and poor control of the diseases for which the patient is seeking care.
To illustrate the point, Dr. Hightower used hidradenitis suppurativa (HS), a disease that appears to be on the rise among adolescents, as an example of why patient circumstances matter and should be considered. A complex disorder that is more prevalent in resource-poor communities, HS is difficult to control, often requiring extended periods of treatment with medications that can involve complex dosing or regular infusions.
“There is a need for medical providers to help the patient plan for this chronic illness,” said Dr. Hightower, referring to the importance of close follow-up. In adolescents, HS can be sufficiently disruptive from both the physical and psychological perspective that poor control can “derail future aspirations” by complicating educational endeavors and social interactions.
Dr. Hightower acknowledged that simply documenting housing insecurity or other issues does not solve these problems, but he does believe that developing a sensitivity to these obstacles to health care is a first step. It is a process that should permeate into medical training, health care research, and strategies to improve outcomes.
“The connections between fair housing and clinical practice may appear tenuous and inconsequential to the care provided by medical specialists,” Dr. Hightower said, but he emphasized that there are clear consequences when these factors contribute to inadequate control of such diseases as HS. As a source of missed appointments and disjointed care, an unstable home life can be an important barrier to disease control – and because of scarring nodules, fistulae, pain, school absences, and social isolation, complications can be dire.
Solutions to insecure housing are not typically available to an individual clinician, but the awareness that this can be a factor can help both physicians and patients begin to think about the role this plays in impairing recovery and what solutions might be found to modify the impact. Awareness not just among individual clinicians but a broader consortium of those working to improve health care outcomes is needed to “challenge the way we are doing medicine,” he said.
While conversations about the social determinants of health, including access to resources within patients’ neighborhoods, schools, and environment, can demonstrate concern about how to address obstacles, it can also be part of a reorientation to think beyond treatment for the underlying pathology alone. Eliciting trust and emphasizing the importance of environmental barriers to adequate care can be positive steps on the path to solutions.