It’s been a busy summer for CVS Health. This week, the company rounded out its retail health ecosystem by expanding its CarePass membership program. 

For a $5 monthly or $48 annual fee, CarePass members get free home delivery of prescription drugs and drug-store purchases, as well as other perks. The effort has been widely seen as a way to compete with Amazon Prime, which has either chipped away at, or is threatening, pharmacy sales in both the front and back of the store.

While the announcement may have raised a few eyebrows in life sciences, there was another one that should have made biopharma companies sit up and take notice. I’m talking about CVS Health‘s move last month to launch a platform addressing the social determinants of health. The effort, dubbed Destination: Health, is one plank of a $100 million, five-year commitment called the Building Healthier Communities initiative, which is funded by both CVS Health and Aetna’s foundation. 

In industry circles, the term “social determinants of health” (SDoH) has become something of a buzz phrase. But the concept behind it, the important role that social conditions like socioeconomic status play in our overall health, along with access to basic needs such as safe housing, transportation and nutritious food, has been moving further into the mainstream for some time. Several health systems and insurers have announced initiatives to address social determinants. 

CVS Health’s technology partner in Destination: Health is Unite Us, a company founded in 2013. Unite Us provides a digital infrastructure, replacing a process whereby a discharge planner, social worker or care manager would hand someone a printed brochure and hoped he or she followed up on their own. 

As part of the deal, healthcare providers in CVS Health’s retail clinics will be able to make electronic referrals for such non-clinical services as rides and meals, and do so within their clinical workflow, said Taylor Justice, cofounder and president of Unite Us.

“They can make that referral through their electronic health record into the community, see if that organization accepts that referral, and then, more importantly, see what happens at the end of that month if services had been rendered within that patient’s chart,” he said. 

Justice compared the tracking of social care services to the point-of-sale technology that a pharmacy such as CVS uses to fulfill retail credit-card purchases: “You wouldn’t have a CVS without the ability for someone to pay with a credit card, would you? We’re their infrastructure.”

“They want us to be there to be able to ensure that those transactions actually happen,” he added. “If you don’t, then you’re just saying, ‘OK, I’m going to put a list up there and hope people connect to it.’” 

SDoH referral platforms like Unite Us, and to a certain extent competitors like Solera, which facilitates outcomes-based payment for community-based organizations, represent the most mature segment of the nascent SDoH industry, according to a 2018 report from strategy firm Patchwise Labs. The social platform sector is growing at a CAGR of 23% to 25% to an estimated size of $265 million by 2023, per the report.

By providing this back-end “plumbing” to health systems, plans and state governments that want to move care into the community, these firms are enabling the SDoH revolution. They’re also providing the necessary conditions for non-clinical referrals to multiply, as more community-based services can tap into this digital supply chain, from churches and barbershops to educators and food pantries. 

Unite Us has distinguished itself in the social innovation sector through a string of similar deals. It’s powering Kaiser Permanente’s Thrive Local technology and care coordination platform, rolled out in May to its 12.3 million members and the 68 million people in the communities Kaiser serves, and a state-wide SDoH program for all of North Carolina, which just went live.

The CVS Health deal brings the SDoH trend to the mainstream market in a whole new way. In addition to its nearly 9,700 drug stores, CVS Health runs more than 1,100 MinuteClinic walk-in clinics as well as a growing number of HealthHUB stores across the country. 

And that marks a tipping point in terms of SDoH’s broader relevance to other sectors like life sciences. If SDoH platforms are making it easier for doctors to make referrals for social services right in their workflow, and right alongside the prescribing of therapeutics, that’s an opportunity for biopharma. Shouldn’t every drug have a social-care strategy?

I spoke with CVS Health and some of the other players analyzing, and getting in on, the SDoH game. I also canvassed industry execs, a foundation and a health policy think-tank for their views. In a couple of weeks, I’ll report on what I found in a feature for the September issue of MM&M. Stay tuned!

Meantime, do you see CVS Health’s new SDoH platform as a tipping point in the growing recognition of SDoH? How should life science firms interpret this? Share your responses with us in the comments section below.