Can Health Tech Fuel Health Equity?

The pandemic has made very clear how deeply entrenched health inequity is in our society. As employers mobilize to address this complex problem in their own populations, they might consider how to harness the disruptive force of digital and virtual health solutions, particularly in the area of primary care. Health equity could be described as a state in which everyone has the equal opportunity to be healthy. While digital health solutions can’t end poverty and discrimination– key barriers to health equity – they might be able to help level the playing field by making preventive and maintenance care more accessible to marginalized people, helping them avoid more severe or acute health events.

Here are a few examples of how that might work:

  • Local connected health kiosks - Moving care out of the office and into the home or the local community could alleviate barriers to getting health care like a lack of transportation or not being able to miss work. Innovators are stacking grocery stores and pharmacies with connected kiosks to take biometrics and perform other foundational health screenings. These kiosks can be outfitted with touchscreens, video capability for live consult, and all of your favorite physical check-up accoutrements from stethoscopes to pulse oximeters and more. Many even include card readers to enable streamlined information exchange and payment (where applicable) between patient and providers. Health kiosks can bring care to communities that are the most in need -- and let patients bypass the unaccommodating 9-5 physician office model. Kiosks are a low-cost way to provide on-demand services, and do so at scale.

  • At home testing and remote monitoring- Home test kits support wellness and prevention by making allergy tests, medication sensitivity tests, cholesterol tests and others much more accessible. In addition, the start-up community has made important investments in at-home monitoring for those with chronic conditions and those who are recovering from surgery. At-home monitoring can ward off missteps in recovery and treatment. By keeping patients from having to make another visit to their doctor or even face another inpatient admission that could have been avoided, at-home monitoring also frees up medical resources to be deployed more productively.

  • AI-based symptom trackers and care coordination – Using algorithms and technology to identify patient needs and the best course of care has the potential to mitigate biases in how Black and other minority patients are cared for in traditional healthcare settings. Health equity is not advanced when providers treat patients differently based on race or other personal characteristics due to subconscious biases, which studies have shown to be the case. This human-error can be addressed by using data-driven algorithms first, and professional intuition second. Are there risks to this approach? Absolutely. Is it worth exploring? Again, absolutely.

These and other digital health innovations have the potential to positively influence population health. However, there remains an underlying and often overlooked issue: the lack of universally reliable and functional high-speed internet. The pandemic highlighted this as a major challenge when we saw millions flocking to local hotspots for online schooling. This hurdle must be cleared to unlock the potential of digital health solutions to improve health equity.

The health-tech community is highly engaged in the challenge of disrupting systemic health inequity. The solutions follow principles that are consistent with employer strategies: making care delivery convenient for the member/patient/consumer and directly addressing the needs of underserved employees and members. 

Nick Schram
by Nick Schram

Principal, Mercer's Center for Health Innovation

Register for Mercer US Health News to receive weekly e-mail updates.