Disparities in health and healthcare by race, ethnicity, language, and socioeconomic status are an ongoing dilemma in our country. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) has been tracking health disparities over the last twenty years. The organization’s most recent report found that while some inequalities have diminished, “disparities persist and some even worsened, especially for poor and uninsured populations.”
The pandemic has shed even more light on this problem as minority and low-income populations have suffered disproportionate levels of infection and death. Now, racial and ethnic disparities may be threatening access and uptake of COVID-19 vaccines.
The language spoken, the color of one’s skin, or someone’s home address create barriers that should not even exist. Barriers are erected when people do not understand or trust one another. Assumptions are made, bias occurs.
To break down those barriers, we need to foster a culture of inclusivity. Becoming broadly inclusive is a substantial challenge, no doubt. However, technology can play a pivotal role in fostering inclusivity and reducing health disparities by addressing the following three imperatives.
Bridge the Digital Divide
Lack of technology, digital literacy, and reliable internet coverage are all factors that contribute to the digital divide. Over 21 million Americans lack broadband internet access, which is now considered a social determinant of health.
The digital divide disproportionately affects the elderly as well as low-income and minority households. This means that marginalized populations are missing out on telehealth, patient portals, online vaccine scheduling, and other digital health opportunities.
Technology holds the promise of helping patients navigate their healthcare journeys, elevating the experience of care, and facilitating access to care for all. All stakeholders, including those of us who work in health IT, need to do everything possible to reduce the chasm between people with access to technology and those without.
Meet Patients Where They Are
Meeting patients where they are is key to promoting health equity. We need to focus on innovating to meet the unique needs of diverse patient populations.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to reducing health disparities. And it is important to avoid making assumptions. For example, an elderly person from an underserved community may not be connecting to a digital portal, but that does not necessarily mean he is unconnected, uneducated, or slow to adopt technology.
Digital health solutions should be tailored to meet every patient where they are physically, financially, culturally, and emotionally. This takes forethought in technology design, use of data to identify disparities, and ongoing education of patients, providers, and medical staff members.
Technology will elevate the customer experience if it is easily adaptable to their needs. A perfect example of how technology can be used to meet patients where they are (literally!) is the partnership of Lyft with CVS Health, the YMCA, and other nonprofit organizations to provide individuals in underserved communities with transportation to vaccine appointments.
Marginalized patients have legitimate concerns about trust, privacy, and motives. There is a long history of people from minority communities being exploited or lied to by the medical establishment. Building a foundation of trust at every touchpoint in healthcare, including health IT, will help foster inclusivity and diminish health disparities.
Healthcare providers can use technology to cultivate trust by ensuring every patient, regardless of who they are or where they come from, has equal access to:
- Price transparency
- Communications that convey empathy and understanding
- Real-time, up-to-date, and accurate information
- Positive, consistent experiences throughout the patient journey
- Technology that provides a high level of data security
- A seamless patient payment experience
Tapping Into the Potential of Technology to Improve Health Equity
The pandemic has sparked a national conversation about health equity. Healthcare leaders, health IT innovators, and policymakers should take this opportunity to ensure everyone has equal access to healthcare.
There must be actionable policies to bridge the digital divide keeping in mind that policy without action or execution is fruitless. We also need community-level outreach to strengthen connections and build trust.
Technology should be designed to meet patients where they are in terms of language and cultural understanding so that they are empowered to benefit from these digital tools. By tapping into the full potential of technology, we will be able to diminish health disparities.