Impacting Social Determinants of Health in Primary Care 5/26/22

Approaches to Impact Social Determinants of Health: V & Z Code Awareness

From the macro level of statistical data, we can readily demonstrate and appreciate that larger forces are at play in determining the health and welfare of groups and individuals, but translating that understanding about the Social and Environmental Determinants of Health down to the micro level of interactions with patients or families sitting in our waiting and examination rooms is a challenging endeavor.  This article will be one of a series of discussions about approaches and interventions that may serve to promote efforts to address and ultimately ameliorate these risk factors in our patients lives and communities.

For starters it is evident that this is not an easy task, as for the most part, as healthcare providers, we work at the micro level, often doing and experiencing the wonder and satisfactions of our one-on-one interventions with patients to address acute and chronic physical and emotional health concerns.  We know that much of what we see in the office has roots in various environmental factors, but as healthcare providers, we typically have little influence of these external factors and we are limited in our capacity to assess, measure and intervene with larger social and environmental concerns.

Of course, sometimes we can individually and collectively have influence and see impacts – for example, with organized public health immunization efforts we may note the consequential reduction of children presenting with measles infection and, following broad educational campaigns, we may see increased numbers of babies being breast fed or see examples of how screening and patient education can reduce the impact of the quiet killers: obesity, hypertension, and metabolic disorders.

How might individual primary care providers have greater impact in their day to day work?

A first step, of course, is to recognize that innumerable adverse non-medical factors have enormous impact on health outcomes.   These factors are multiple and complex and include the social, legal, environmental, and commercial conditions in which people and families live their daily lives.  To name a few: poor access to healthcare, food and housing insecurity, traumatic exposure to family and/or community violence, exposure to environmental toxins, commercial promotion of unhealthy behaviors, access/exposure to substances of abuse, deficiencies in educational services, institutional and sociocultural bias because of racial, ethnic, gender/sexual and other minority identity factors, and, and , and … the list goes on (see V Codes and Z Codes link, below).

A second step is to identify the presence of these adverse determinants in the lives of our patients as a component of our overall health and health risk appraisal of patients.  Within the psychiatric community, where medicine meets society and culture more directly than in other areas of healthcare, this has been recognized.  While this recognition is far from optimal, these factors are brought into the diagnostic and treatment planning process by the designation of V Codes within the DSM (and the comparable Z Codes in the ICD 10) diagnostic systems.

While not recognized as primary mental health disorders and generally not reimbursable per se, V and Z Code conditions are included to identify “other conditions that may be a focus of clinical attention”.   The rationale being that interventions to ameliorate any of these conditions may often have significant impact on a patient’s overall mental health status and functionality.  While V and Z Codes do not address underlying causes of health problems, they can be used to identify the panoply of concerns that can impair functionality and wellness and they are a systematic vehicle to get social issues reflected in the psychiatric and medical chart.

V Codes (DSM-5) & Z Codes (ICD-10)

Recognizing V and Z Code conditions as potential negative determinants of health in primary care arguably makes sense, as recognition of these conditions, along with consideration of potential interventions could be of obvious benefit for many patients both acutely and ongoing through their lifespan.

Clearly, the challenge of finding and activating relevant resources to assist individuals with these complex problems is a significant one, but the recognition of these conditions and consideration of potential interventions, typically through referral to social agencies or other support networks seem appropriate considerations.

Provider consultation with and referral of patients to SmartCare program staff should be considered as a potential resource for providers and patients seeking supports and other interventions in the V and Z Code arena.

2-1-1 San Diego is another resource that can take the time to understand each individual’s situation and link those in need with those who can best help. A free, 24 hour, confidential phone service and searchable online database, 2-1-1 connects people quickly, confidentially and effectively to community, health, and disaster services. Available in over 200 languages, 2-1-1 provides information about more than 6,000 resources.

To paraphrase the public safety messaging about potential threat situations, it may be appropriate to adopt a “See Something, Say Something” approach— acknowledging relevant life stress issues and suggesting that patients “Do Something” that may improve a their life situation and, ultimately, their long term health status.


  1. Compton, M. T., & Shim, R. S. (2015). The social determinants of mental health. Focus, 13(4), 419- 425.
  2. CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF SOCIAL POLICY. (n.d.). About strengthening families™ and the protective factors framework. About-Strengthening-Families. Retrieved January 24, 2022, from
  3. Psych DB Listing of V Codes and Z Codes:
  4. SmartCare E-Weekly:  An Important Community Resource 211 San Diego
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