Although health care systems commonly refer individuals with unmet social needs to social service agencies, in some cases, these agencies may not have the capacity to provide adequate assistance. This study reviews the capacity of social service organizations in one state to successfully address 50 different social needs via 211 helpline data, and compares the results to other states with similar data.
The capacity of social service organizations to address social needs varied by the actual need, with referrals for food pantry and tax preparation services having the highest likelihood of being met (over 90 percent for both) while things like rent and transportation assistance were met less than 50 percent of the time. Social service organizations serving rural regions had lower capacity to address needs than organizations serving non-rural locations. While housing and transportation are often recommended to be screened by health care providers, capacity to actually provide assistance for these needs was low in the states studied. These findings illuminate the limitations of screening and linkage interventions commonly used in health care settings.
Social needs interventions that refer vulnerable patients to a social service organization with low capacity for meeting identified client needs, in particular for services like transportation or housing, are likely to be unsuccessful. To avoid this scenario, health care organizations should screen and refer for social needs that have a higher likelihood to be met by social service agencies, such as needs related to clothing, food pantries, gas utility payments, legal assistance, health insurance, medical providers, and substance use services. Creative community solutions — and new policy proposals — may be beneficial in designing solutions for meeting high-prevalence social needs, such as housing and transportation, that social service organizations have limited capacity to address.