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The Mission of Safety Net Hospitals: Charity or Equity?

Thea James
Journal of Clinical Ethics 2018, 29 (3): 237-239
The traditional mission of safety net hospitals has been charity, providing the best healthcare for all individuals no matter their ability to pay. The focus has been on vulnerable populations that are low-income, uninsured, and other upstream circumstances that manifest downstream as poor health, poor health outcomes, and repeated high-cost interventions that fail to break cycles of perpetual health instability. Safety net hospitals are committed to serving their populations, even if only temporarily, through provision of subsidies and filling gaps that exist in patients' lives. These interventions do not lead to the elimination of gaps, hence cyclical health instability persists. It is a new day in healthcare and what it means for people to be well. The focus is on improving health outcomes by addressing root causes of health instability such as unstable housing, income, education, and access to affordable healthy foods. This gives us pause to reflect on the traditional mission of safety net hospitals and the impact of charity in isolation. Are safety net hospitals missing an opportunity to mitigate and eliminate perpetual health instability? Can they shift the paradigm of healthcare for vulnerable populations to alter their quality-of-life course? To move forward, safety net hospitals have to change their mind set and existing narratives about what is possible for vulnerable populations to achieve. These historic giants in healthcare have an opportunity to use their assets and employ a methodology of disruption and innovation to shift the mission of safety net healthcare from charity to equity.


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