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The power of technology to expand equitable access to healthcare

August 03, 2021
Health IT
From the August 2021 issue of HealthCare Business News magazine

By Adnan Iqbal

Access to a doctor shouldn’t be dependent on your race, ZIP code, or socioeconomic status, but for millions of Americans who experience healthcare disparities, getting care is more difficult than it should be. While structural changes are needed to make healthcare truly equitable, technology can help by getting more patients to the right care quickly, in a way that is tailored to their specific needs.

Health outcomes for people of color have long been worse than those for white Americans; for example, a Black woman is 2.5 times more likely than a white woman to die in childbirth. The same root causes of compounding racial discrimination and inequity have caused Black communities to be hit hardest by COVID-19, and recent data from Kaiser Family Foundation shows that Black Americans have received a smaller percentage of COVID-19 vaccinations.

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Health equity researchers point to trusted community providers and consistent, clear, and accurate communication as key factors in building trust in communities of color, for COVID-19 vaccinations and beyond. Meanwhile, patients are increasingly making healthcare decisions based on cost, convenience, and then healthcare need. As big-box retailers like Walmart enter the healthcare space, patients are likely to begin getting much of their primary care at an affordable price in the places they shop every week. This convenience and affordability could increase access to basic healthcare, but it also comes at the cost of a trusted, long-term relationship with a community healthcare provider.

Technology can help bridge the equity gap by helping patients get the care they need from a community provider quickly. For example, remote check-ins with an OB can help more women get high-quality care throughout their pregnancies and postpartum. These check-ins have real benefits for expectant mothers, who would otherwise need to spend travel time, transportation resources, and potentially limited paid time off to attend more than a dozen prenatal visits. Reducing these barriers makes care more accessible and convenient, contributing to good health outcomes down the line.

Leveraging technology also helps providers be a part of a patient’s total wellness, beyond the walls of the hospital or clinic. From their phone, a patient with diabetes might read up on educational materials, connect to a virtual checkup with one click, or monitor their blood sugar. Appointment reminders can ensure they’re getting to preventive care appointments for an eye exam or A1c. Being able to review education, find a community resource, or talk to their dietitian from anywhere can help them access quality food to support their care plan. Using technology to connect to patients throughout the health journey can help reduce the health impact of chronic conditions like diabetes, which disproportionately affect communities of color.

Technology can also connect patients who might be hesitant to get vaccinated against COVID-19 to a trusted provider and resource. For example, imagine being able to text your provider with your questions about the vaccine, or being directly sent bite-size educational information in your preferred language that you can consume on the go. Other patients might be interested in being vaccinated, but have trouble coordinating with their work schedules. A personalized, flexible appointment offer could help make the vaccination more convenient by aligning with a lunch break, for example.

For technology to make a difference in patients’ access to equitable care, however, it needs to meet them where they are. That involves thinking about each patient’s specific needs, how they’ll use the technology in their daily lives, and whether the outreach will be a positive, helpful experience for them. In particular, technology solutions need a low barrier to entry. Apps that might be inconvenient or difficult to use, solutions that need consistent broadband access, or communication that is unclear or not in a patient’s preferred language all risk building on existing barriers and alienating patients from their care.

At its best, technology can support and extend the work that local providers are doing to connect with patients in their communities. It can make in-person care quicker and easier to navigate, and outside the clinic, it can bring providers, resources, and follow-up communication directly to patients. Technology that is intentional and designed with patients’ specific needs in mind can support new methods of care delivery.

Adnan Iqbal
It's exciting to be contributing to healthcare at a generational watershed moment, when patients’ expectations for their care are changing, digital transformation has happened at incredible speed, and there is more awareness of inequity in healthcare that has affected communities of color for decades. As healthcare organizations make care more equitable, technology that is thoughtfully designed to meet patients’ needs — and treat patients like people, not a resource or lead — must be part of the effort.

About the author: Adnan Iqbal is the co-founder and CEO of Luma Health.

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