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Financial Strain Has Major Impact on Patients' Health Care Decisions

Financial strain is the single most important factor in making health care decisions for low-income individuals, who often forgo care in favor of basic needs like food and rent, researchers in UT Southwestern's Center for Patient-Centered Outcomes Research (PCOR) found.

In addition, low-income individuals are often reluctant or too embarrassed to discuss their financial hardships and constraints with caregivers during office visits. As a result, physicians and caregivers frequently misinterpret that choice as noncompliance with medical care.

"Financial strain is the burden that prevents many low-income patients from being able to take better care of themselves," says lead author Oanh Nguyen, MD, an assistant professor of internal medicine and clinical sciences at UT Southwestern Medical Center. "This financial strain can cause nonadherence to physician recommendations that appear to reflect a patient's lack of engagement in care. However, this 'nonadherence' is actually the result of rational and difficult trade-offs to cope with financial strain."

To combat the reluctance to discuss financial strain, physicians should take the lead in recognizing and "diagnosing" financial strain, the authors recommend.

"We believe our findings will help physicians better recognize the signs and symptoms of financial strain in patients, so that they can create a safe environment for patients to overcome their embarrassment by discussing these concerns and work with their patients to develop the best plan of care that works within the patient's financial means," Nguyen says. "For instance, discussing which medications cost more or less and which are safe to skip or stretch if necessary."

Researchers conducted 12 focus groups among individuals seeking services at Crossroads Community Services, a local nonprofit organization providing food assistance and other support to low-income families in Dallas. Most participants were in their 40s and 50s, 67% were women, 5% were white, 38% were black, and 56% were Hispanic. Findings from the PCOR study appear in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

Next steps include development of analytic algorithms to help health care teams recognize when an individual may be unable to adhere to medical recommendations due to the presence of financial strain and other unmet basic needs.

Other UT Southwestern researchers involved in the study include Anil N. Makam, MD, an assistant professor of internal medicine; Simon Craddock Lee, PhD, an associate professor of clinical sciences; Robin T. Higashi, PhD, senior staff scientist in the department of clinical sciences; and Juan C. Mijares, research associate in the department of clinical sciences.

Source: UT Southwestern Medical Center