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Tackling Patients' Social Problems Can Cut Health Costs


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Donning a protective gown, rubber gloves and a face mask, Dayna Gurley looks like she’s heading into surgery. But Gurley is a medical social worker charged with figuring out why her client, a man who uses more health care services than almost anyone else in Houston, has been in three different hospitals in the last month.

The patient, who asked not to be identified, has chronic massive ulcers, AIDS and auditory hallucinations. He rents a cot in another person’s home but is more often homeless, with no family to help him.

“It’s almost like self-sabotage,” Gurley said about her many attempts to steady her client’s life. “We get really close to an important doctor’s appointment or getting him connected with stable housing, and his impulsiveness gets in the way of that.”

Patients like the Houston man are health care’s so-called “super-utilizers”— people with complex problems who frequent emergency rooms for ailments more aptly handled by primary care doctors and social workers. They cost public and private insurers dearly — making up just five percent of the U.S. population, but accounting for 50 percent of health care spending.

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