Can digital health technologies improve access to care?
The Digital Health for Equitable Health Alliance and other initiatives aim to support care delivery for minorities and achieve health equity.
Healthcare availability, access and delivery have been compromised for low-income, minority and underserved populations for far too long.
In many metropolitan areas, citizens exist in healthcare deserts that make it difficult for people to seek healthcare when they need it or from conveniently maintaining healthcare therapies. This results in populations of patients that are high risk for receiving needed healthcare services, thus discouraging healthcare providers from extending care to these citizens.
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the chasm between the haves and have nots. Many minority groups experienced higher rates of sickness and death from COVID-19. Key factors driving healthcare inequity include economic stability, neighborhood and physical environment, education level, food availability, community/safety/social context, and community healthcare systems.
An Altarum report identifies a potential economic gain of $135 billion per year if racial disparities in health are eliminated, including $93 billion in excess medical care costs and $42 billion in untapped productivity. People of color are projected to represent 50 percent of the U.S. population by 2050, so that is a significant driver in the push to reduce healthcare costs and improve care quality and treatment outcomes for all citizens by the federal government.
As the pandemic has taught us, digital technologies will be a significant foundation for reshaping healthcare services to achieve the quadruple aim of reducing healthcare costs, improving population health and patient experience, and improving the well-being of healthcare teams.
A new alliance announced in May – the Digital Health for Equitable Health Alliance – aims to improve health equity through the expansion of digital health innovations. The alliance membership comprises historically black colleges and universities, patient and physician advocacy organizations, and corporate organizations – they all have the mission to improve access to care in underserved organizations.
The alliance will focus on reducing health disparities for low-income, minority and underserved populations in the U.S. using digital health. The alliance will promote policies and programs to increase individuals’ access to healthcare by expanding innovations involving telehealth, wearables, artificial intelligence and machine learning.
An example of a company focusing on delivering equitable healthcare services via digital technologies is Amazon Web Services. The AWS Healthcare Accelerator has been established to focus on health equity. The accelerator includes a $40 million commitment that the organization made to support start-up entities that are developing solutions to reduce health inequities.
The AWS program will support 10 start-ups with technical, business, and mentorship programs. The start-ups must be U.S.-based or have existing operations in the U.S. if they are international. The start-ups will be considered for funding if they focus on one or more areas, including improving access to health services, reducing disparities by addressing social determinants of health, and leveraging data to promote equitable and inclusive systems of care.
The Digital Health for Equitable Health Alliance and AWS Healthcare Accelerator provide great examples for resolving healthcare inequities in this country.
Aiming to boost social stability
The current U.S. healthcare system is based on providing care to people who have insurance, and a large portion of our population that does not have Medicare or Medicaid does not have access to health insurance through their employer or simply can’t afford the outrageous cost of current healthcare policies. This population of citizens is predominately represented by minorities in underserved communities that local healthcare providers couldn’t care less about supporting.
Emerging digital healthcare solutions where smartphones provide access to symptom checkers can provide diagnostic tools (such as cardiac rhythms and voice biomarkers), identify and resolve SDOH challenges, connect people to community health centers and enable better healthcare for these citizens.
Many organizations have good intentions
While the Digital Health for Equitable Health Alliance and AWS Healthcare Accelerator are good examples of how organizations and companies are stepping forward to resolve the healthcare inequity challenge, these programs cannot falter. Failure to deliver tangible and quickly adopted digital solutions to help impacted populations of citizens will result in social disruption. Payers and pharmaceutical companies need to join these efforts.
Here are some crucial success factors:
- Healthcare organizations should evaluate joining the Digital Health for Equitable Health Alliance to establish strategies for improving healthcare services to their underserved communities.
- Healthcare organizations should prioritize digital healthcare solutions based on their ability to help support both current patient populations and underserved communities.
Providers should identify minority citizens that qualify for Medicaid, enroll them and use digital health solutions to better manage their healthcare as a starting point.
This country’s healthcare system promotes inequity of care for minority citizens who do not have access to affordable healthcare coverage. Many minority citizens forgo healthcare insurance because it is too expensive, and when they need healthcare, they are often bankrupted for the services they receive.
A visit to an emergency department for a potential stroke evaluation can easily cost $30,000. This significantly impacts the lifestyle of lower-income citizens, who now have additional financial liabilities to contend with.
This is an ethical, moral and social embarrassment for the U.S. The pandemic has highlighted the challenges the country faces for delivering care equally across all patient populations. While digital health technologies cannot resolve the access-to-care issue such as insurance affordability, they can improve care delivery with lower cost solutions that improve care quality. Digital technologies will be the foundation for virtual care that is likely to provide more affordable services for low-income citizens if we can price that care fairly.
Mike Davis is an analyst for KLAS Research. This column was originally published on the KLAS website here.