Although study after study has linked poverty to poor health -- a 2006 report in the journal Pediatrics found that children whose families cannot pay their utility bills are 30 percent more likely to be hospitalized -- the medical and social service systems have long operated in largely separate and disconnected spheres. Too often, that results in a medical revolving door, as when doctors prescribe asthma medicines for children living in mold-infested apartments, only to have them wind up in the emergency room because their housing conditions were never addressed.
"Physicians don't ask these questions because they don't know what to do with the answers," said Children's social worker Alison Page. Most doctors, she added, have neither the time nor the expertise to deal with what health researchers call "the social determinants" of health.
Health Leads attempts to bridge that chasm. Patients fill out a questionnaire that prompts doctors to ask about their unmet needs; using that information, physicians and other staff members can "prescribe" food, housing assistance or child care, among other things. Patients then take their prescriptions to Health Leads, where student volunteers attempt to fill them, helping tap local resources many clients don't know exist or have been unable to access.