Leveling the Playing Field: Using Technology to Drive Health Equity

Although assuring health equity is not a new concern for healthcare providers, sobering data on the COVID-19 pandemic, including infection, hospitalization, death, and now vaccination rates, has exposed health disparities and barriers to care in a way like never before. 

Health equity, or the idea that differences in health status or access to healthcare should not lead to unfairness and injustice in health outcomes, seems like a basic tenet of care delivery. But significant gaps remain among and between various patient populations, and personalized, targeted initiatives are needed to address systemic problems in health equity. 

There’s a bright light, however, in the form of digital health technology that can scale care teams, increase access, and meet patients where they are — wherever that may be. Let’s take a closer look.

Viewing COVID-19 as an amplifier

It is clear that race and ethnicity were (and remain) significant risk factors that impacted health for individuals with COVID-19. American Indian or Alaska Native individuals are at more than three times the risk of hospitalization from COVID-19 as compared to white individuals; Black or African American individuals see rates of death two times higher than their white counterparts; and Hispanic or Latino individuals are infected at twice the rate of white individuals. These numbers suggest that there’s disparity in both healthcare treatment and social determinants of health.  

The disparities are reflected in not just infection rates but in vaccine distribution, as well. Even in American cities with high vaccination rates, like Seattle, where 70% of residents 12 and over were fully vaccinated by early June 2021, just slightly more than 50% of Black and Latinx residents had reached that milestone in the same timeframe. 

COVID-19 has brought these issues to light for many, but the problems threaten to continue beyond the pandemic. Assuring health equity matters, and it’s past time to bring all resources to bear. Digital health technology has a big role to play in leveling the playing field.

Technology as an extension of the care team

In a time when care teams are stretched thin and patient populations are growing, technology can help ensure easily accessible, readily equitable care across demographics.

Because of its nearly ubiquitous nature, technology — like mobile apps, smartphones, and even desktop web browsers — can be the difference between a patient who is out of touch with their care team and one who feels heard and cared for at every step of their health journey.

Of note, it’s important to prioritize digital equity — itself driven by “digital determinants of health.” This is the idea that unequal access to digital resources can have a very real impact on the health of individuals, and it factors directly into health equity as a whole.

Two key examples are access to broadband, something that impacts which populations can take advantage of things like telehealth services, and access to smartphones and smartphone data, which dictates whether apps can be helpful for healthcare needs. 

To address digital equity, lower technology barriers, like automated, integrated text messaging and live chat, can help to engage patient communities not only at scale, but in a medium with which vulnerable populations are comfortable and to which they already have access.

In practice: M Health Fairview

During the early days of the pandemic, M Health Fairview was able to rapidly deploy GetWell Loop as one important component of its COVID-19 response. In addition to helping patients system-wide, this specifically helped increase equity for local communities of color, who often face health disparities. 

GetWell Loop enables patients to stay connected to their care teams throughout their care journey via digital check-ins, remote self-monitoring, real-time alerts, and virtual triage for prioritizing testing, virtual visits, or hospitalization. 

In one such use case, M Health Fairview used the tool to connect local Somali patients with Somali-speaking medical volunteers, lowering language barriers and ensuring healthcare could be offered to all who needed it. In a public health emergency like a global pandemic, this kind of outreach is critical.

The bottom line

Health inequities are a very real concern, both in healthcare and our wider society. Different treatments for different demographics, unequal access to care, and social determinants of health that affect care outcomes all add up to a system that is not experienced in the same way by everyone who needs it. 

For providers and health systems struggling with assuring health equity, there’s help to be found in technological solutions, which can help expand care teams, reach patients, and level the playing field for all patients. That truly represents care for all, and it’s important to keep striving for it.