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Why Your Zip Code Has Become Just as Important as Your Vital Signs When Tracking Health

Steve Nelson, UnitedHealthcare
Chief Executive Officer

Steve Nelson is chief executive officer of UnitedHealthcare, a division of UnitedHealth Group (NYSE: UNH). UnitedHealthcare serves one in eight Americans, making it the single largest business dedicated to health and well-being in the United States.

When we think of our “vital signs,” we think of those four common measures to track our health – blood pressure, pulse, body temperature and breathing rate.

But did you know your five-digit zip code may have just as much impact on your health as those four vital signs? Probably not, because that’s not how our health care system operates today.

In the U.S., two-thirds of our health care spending focuses on medical issues and only one-third goes toward social services. Other countries do the opposite; they spend more on social programs, focusing on the root of many medical issues, such as access to food, housing and transportation. Understanding that 90 percent of an individual’s health is determined by what happens outside of a doctor’s office has set UnitedHealthcare on a path to redefine the traditional health insurance model, especially for the most vulnerable populations we serve.

To truly redefine what access to care looks like, we start by looking at the whole person – not just individual medical conditions – and integrating their medical, behavioral health and social service access to get a full picture of how to best address their individual needs. That’s why we started investing in things like transportation companies to get members to and from appointments, as well as affordable, stable housing programs. When we are able to address the social determinants of health, we can have an even larger impact on helping improve people’s health and quality of life – and that’s good for every person we touch and the country’s health care system as a whole. 

Take access to food, for example. It’s no secret that a diet rich in fresh produce has many health benefits, including lower blood pressure and a reduced risk of heart disease, stroke and digestive problems. This year, we set out to get more fresh food into the hands of those in need. When meeting with community-based organizations on the frontlines of fighting hunger, they told us they often turn down donations of fresh food because they have no way to store or transport perishable items. In partnership, we drove innovative solutions to these barriers and, as a result, are able to reach hundreds of thousands of more people with access to fresh food. And, maybe, impact some health outcomes along the way. So, if you see an 18-wheeler on the highway with the words “Fresh veggies coming through,” it’s us!

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Housing is another great example of how we can think differently about supporting people’s health. An estimated 14.5 million Americans lack access to stable housing. Understanding the huge impact housing has on a person’s health, we invested over $350 million to help build more than 2,700 affordable homes for individuals and families across the country.

In Phoenix, our myConnections team met Stewart* who was homeless and frequently visiting emergency rooms because of his countless medical problems, including diabetes, anemia and depression. This all changed for him when our myConnections team stepped in to get him stable housing and access to medical and social services. Now, Stewart is thriving in the housing community and receives the support he needs to lead a healthier life – he is even rebuilding his business.

Our efforts are just at the beginning, and we are far from being done. This year, and every year from now on, we are determined to reach more people and expand access to much-needed health and social services through a combination of new and expanded business capabilities and investment-based partnerships. It’s not a one-time inoculation; it’s the idea that housing, food and transportation are just as critical vital signs too. 

But this cannot be achieved by just one person or organization. It’s up to all of us to partner together. If we all invest in both medical care and social services, we can collectively make a significant impact on helping sustain healthier human lives.

*Stewart is not his real name; the individual's name was changed to respect his privacy.