Can Health Technology Boost Health Equity?
As we mark the Affordable Care Act’s 5th anniversary, the linked issues of access to health care and to information technology are flash points for debate. On Tuesday, March 24th, at a panel discussion on Digital Health Strategies, Health Disparities and Health Equity, part of the Institute of Medicine’s Roundtable on Health Literacy Workshop on Consumer Facing Technology, Dr. Winston Wong of Kaiser Permanente highlighted that both health care and information access are considered by some to be human rights – and that technology has the potential to either diminish or exacerbate the health disparities felt by underserved populations.
Detroit experiences some of the worst health disparities in the country: high infant mortality rates are a particular local problem and local Wayne State University is a center for work on reducing health disparities in oncology and other areas. Dr. Wong reported lessons from a recent public workshop at Wayne State on Digital Health Strategies, Health Disparities, and Health Equity: The Promises and Perils of Technology.
Dr. Katherine Kim of UC Davis School of Nursing, specializes in information technology to improve community health, care coordination and clinical research. She and Wong both stressed on Tuesday that digital health strategies should focused first on real people’s needs; only then on technology. They shared several tips to keep in mind when developing and communicating around health technology:
- Let communities drive the agenda: Design research, testing, devices, interfaces and user journeys with communities – not just by “keeping the community in mind”
- Make technology “hackable,” so that community members can tailor it to meet their own needs
- Think mobile-first to help patients and researchers: smartphones are powerful, customizable, accessible and socially relevant. They can help gather health data and manage clinical trials, as well as communicate centrally across people and systems
- Plan around perils: time required from busy health professionals to manage new interfaces, potential detraction from provider-patient interactions, levels of health literacy required to use digital tools, the need to evaluate digital tools’ efficacy
Stakeholders need to have cultural humility and community literacy, Dr. Kim pointed out, to develop health technology solutions that help underserved populations make basic health improvements themselves. As we look ahead to the next five years of the ACA, we can expect innovation not only in stakeholder attitudes but in funding models for health technology. As a Roundtable member noted, there is money in health technology for underserved people, but tapping it requires finding and connecting those in the tech industry who are passionate about public health – and working with them to ensure mutual benefit for all stakeholders in bringing health technology to those who need it most.