People are embracing technology more than ever. However, innovation in digital health has put a spotlight on health equity.
But technological advances in healthcare themselves can contribute to healthcare inequality because it only widens the digital divide between those who do not have smartphones, computers or the internet to access the services they need.
There are so many stakeholders involved when it comes to bridging health equality gaps, from policymakers driving social change to clinicians finding workable solutions for their patients. A collaborative effort with a mindset toward equality in healthcare innovation will help make sure no one is left behind.
We asked healthcare leaders to weigh in on the work to achieve health equity and how innovative and collaborative solutions can help us get closer to realizing the full health potential of every human, everywhere. Here’s what they shared.
The first step is to make addressing health equity a priority. Organizations and their leaders need to do more than making a pledge for change, they need to take action. It is essential that healthcare organizations and their leaders are committed to health equity as a strategic priority. They need to commit time, resources, and funding to confront and take actions to address the social determinants of health and ensure equitable access to care.
Often, it is said that technology is the great equalizer in medicine, improving access for all. I do not think there is one technology that will eliminate health disparities. I believe innovation, powered with human-centered design technology, process and people will have the greatest impact to achieve more equitable outcomes.
Collaboration is key. No one technology will transform healthcare and eliminate disparities. Echoing comments from Sam Shah, founder and director of Faculty of Future Health and HIMSS Global Health Equity Task Force member, “We need to raise awareness at every level.” As we raise awareness, we need to come together and listen to all voices to support the technology and process.
It is essential that healthcare comes together through collaboration to drive progress in key areas that will ultimately create healthier communities.
While AI has the capabilities to revolutionize how care is delivered, the threat of bias not only exists, but could be amplified and perpetuate the inequities. We need to ensure that we don’t compound the imbalance with through the use of AI with models that exacerbates bias. Again, collaboration is the key. Information and technology experts and developers must partner with clinicians and patients to uncover all potential sources of bias, and address using more precise and comprehensive data that eliminates bias.
I truly believe that in order to improve and ultimately eliminate health equity, collaboration is imperative. It is essential to have partnerships to bring together a cross-sector of stakeholders made up of public and private sector partners. This includes representatives from healthcare systems, including clinicians, market suppliers, government agencies, community and faith-based organizations, public safety, education, transportation and others. But most important is to make sure there are patients represented. All voices need to be heard to ensure care is equitable, especially for the most vulnerable communities. Collaborations will allow everyone to learn from each other and come together to join forces to improve health equity.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought unprecedented change and challenges. The pandemic has certainly been a magnifier of the health inequities. We cannot turn a blind eye as there is ever-growing evidence that the pandemic not only exposed, but fueled existing health disparities and their underlying social determinants.
And beyond a doubt, the pandemic demonstrated that the benefits of telemedicine are undeniable. The rapid expansion of telemedicine allowed all to recognize its potential to improve care delivery and access. It transformed care and was pivotal for recovery.
More than anything, the pandemic showed us that we are better together. It connected everyone. It reminded the world who we are collectively, and as individuals. And it reminded us that the impossible is possible. Together, we can eliminate health equities.
When adopting emerging technology into healthcare solutions, we can ensure that we don’t leave communities or specific populations behind by examining the assumptions made within the design of the care. Does this solution rely on a patient having home internet access? Does this patient live in a geographical area with good cellular coverage? Does a successful utilization of this solution require a patient to possess a certain level of comfort with digital tools?
For those who do not have WiFi connections at home, or who are not experienced in navigating digital tools, accessing necessary healthcare services is a growing challenge. Among those most profoundly impacted by the digital divide are elderly patients, patients who live in rural areas, and patients in low-income or marginalized communities.
Considering questions like these—and being willing to allocate time and resources towards responding to found inequities and advocating for more equitable healthcare policies—will ensure that we do not leave vulnerable or disadvantaged populations behind as we continue to innovate and develop new modes of care.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us many lessons, chief among them revealing the breadth of the digital divide in healthcare. Within days, we witnessed an unprecedented shift to reliance on telehealth services as opposed to in-office visits—which, for individuals without broadband internet access at home, are simply not accessible. In the U.S., according to Pew Research, these disconnected individuals are overwhelmingly comprised of senior citizens, those living in rural geographical areas, and members of minority communities.
Amidst the challenges inherent in bridging the digital divide, I believe the future of health equity has never been brighter. Now that we understand the inequities that are present within the design our current healthcare infrastructure, we can work together to allocate time and resources to equity efforts within healthcare that enable access, prioritize individuals’ safety and security, and protect the vulnerable—all while delivering the highest-quality care.
The industry should create a bridge to allow those that don’t have access to digital enablement to have access. Access to digital should turn into a basic right like electricity and heat. Care is increasingly delivered in paperless automated fashion. Our experience in the pandemic was that with first come, first served, the rich would always get on the waitlist before others. This is also true for preventive care and team management of chronic medical conditions.
We see the release of software that is able to do multivariate analysis for decisions on triaging care during times of emergency to those that have the greatest need as opposed to those who have the greatest resources as having the greatest positive impact on health equity. This technology will have the greatest positive impact because those who have the greatest resources frequently are first in line because of their access to technology.
In our experience, decentralizing healthcare and taking care to the community as opposed to requiring the community to come to a particular location to receive healthcare improves satisfaction, efficiency in delivery of care, and compliance. We have proved this new model by implementing the Save Our Seniors program.
With great power comes great responsibility. With the advent of new technologies, we have better access to granular data. This data should be leveraged for reporting on health equity and create accountability to whom we have entrusted this power.
Health equity should be a reportable metric. By tying stakeholder success to metrics that we care about and aligning different stakeholders, we create an atmosphere of noncompetition and therefore encourage collaboration. The necessary stakeholders include directors of public health, executive team leadership in healthcare organizations, innovators, and private companies.
The pandemic taught us that there is a huge gap that exists even today albeit a smaller gap as compared to what existed 50 years ago. It has taught us that people are interested in working towards equity of care delivery and that having visibility into data is the first step to being able to address inequalities in care. Example: Knowing how many vaccines have been given per capita in different countries helps advanced health systems share resources and playbooks with health systems that are disadvantaged.
The views and opinions expressed in this content or by commenters are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of HIMSS or its affiliates.
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Updated July 2, 2021