Companies and health care institutions nationwide are prioritizing digital health equity efforts 

About Karen Blum

Karen Blum is AHCJ’s core topic leader on health IT. An independent journalist in the Baltimore area, she has written health IT stories for publications such as Pharmacy Practice News, Clinical Oncology News, Gastroenterology & Endoscopy News, General Surgery News and Infectious Disease Special Edition.

A screengrab from  Executives for Health Innovation’s “The White Male Doctor Will See You Now: Utilizing Digital Health to Increase Access to Diverse Providers” panel discussion.

Can digital tools help make health care more accessible and affordable for everyone? This concept, known as digital health equity, was the subject of a two-day virtual summit hosted earlier last month by nonprofit organization Executives for Health Innovation (EHI), formerly called the eHealth Initiative. 

Panel discussions covered topics such as advancing digital health equity for rural and underserved populations, delivering maternal health equity, and how virtual care is expanding access for vulnerable communities. Recordings now available for viewing on YouTube can provide a rich foundation of story angles and knowledgeable sources for journalists. 

 Not everyone has access to cultural or linguistic-appropriate providers in their communities, said Catherine Pugh, assistant vice president of policy at EHI. But digital health could be used to ensure everyone nationwide can access a relatable physician who can provide the best possible care. 

In a panel, Pugh chaired at the summit, “The White Male Doctor Will See You Now: Utilizing Digital Health to Increase Access to Diverse Providers,” panelists from several organizations highlighted their efforts to use digital health options to treat and meet the needs of diverse communities. 

ConsejoSano

Abner Mason, founder, and CEO of ConsejoSano, a company that partners with health plans to deliver culturally and linguistically aligned communications, told attendees that the U.S. is on track to becoming a majority-minority country by 2045, but our health care system hasn’t kept up with changing demographics. Many health systems create generic health messages in English and translate them to other languages, such as Spanish, to send to all demographic groups. That one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t build trust and sends a message that people don’t matter, he said. His company uses technology and data to build customized, culturally-targeted experiences for demographic groups, such as two-way text messaging programs. Engaging people at a cultural level can engender trust, which can then allow health systems to get patients into health care at the right time and place, Mason said.

Hims and Hers

April Mims, senior vice president of public policy for Hims and Hers, a company working to eliminate stigmas around health and wellness issues and break down barriers for people to obtain quality health care, said her company has been offering asynchronous telehealth visits that can happen at any time. A patient can start a visit at 10 p.m. after putting children to bed and receive a response from their provider the next morning. It offers flexibility for people who don’t have access to high-speed internet or aren’t available during traditional clinic hours. Providers include women and people of color; all undergo training on sensitivity and “webside” manner.

Cambia Health Solutions

There are a lot of online tools to help patients search for providers based on price or distance, but those aren’t always the factors that matter, said Oliver Kim, director of federal policy for Cambia Health Solutions, a group of health plans in the Pacific Northwest. His group is building a search tool to provide additional information such as a provider’s race and ethnicity, preferred pronouns, gender identity and provision of LGBTQ+ inclusive care.

American Indian Health Service of Chicago

During the COVID-19 pandemic, domestic violence cases surged among the Native American community, said Kaitlynn Johnson, a licensed professional counselor for the American Indian Health Service of Chicago, an organization dedicated to providing quality health care to the American Indian and Alaska Native communities and other underserved populations. Privacy for counseling appointments was suddenly unavailable, so clinicians adapted how they worked with clients to address safety planning during telephone and telehealth calls. They made sure to have up-to-date addresses for clients if they needed to send help and created safe words clients could use to indicate if they were unable to talk or wanted a clinician to call 911 to send immediate assistance.  

In another panel, “Why the Internet Isn’t Enough to Close the Digital Divide,” speakers noted that more is needed to increase access to technology than just better broadband. 

For example, leaders at 35 federally qualified health centers participating in the Massachusetts FQHC Telehealth Consortium reported they were committed to telehealth visits, remote patient monitoring, and expanded use of patient portals (secure websites to give patients access to their personal health information), but were worried about patients being left behind. Project managers at nine centers have done outreach like giving patients phones programmed in different languages for data collection and communication. They also are promoting the hiring of telehealth navigators from different cultures and who speak different languages to help patients engage in care using items like home blood pressure cuffs. 

Providence St. Joseph Health, a nonprofit health system in the Pacific Northwest, has set up a system in which patients can go to their local, rural clinic and be assisted by a “telepresenter” who helps them navigate a telehealth visit with a provider elsewhere. They also can send a home health aide or social worker to a patient’s home to serve as the telepresenter.

EHI created a Digital Health Equity Pledge for organizations to commit to improving the health of all individuals. The initial 42 signers included groups such as Morehouse School of Medicine, the American Heart Association and the American Academy of Family Physicians. 

Resources for journalists covering digital health equity

  • ConsejoSano, a cultural connections company that partners with health plans to deliver personalized member experiences through culturally and linguistically aligned communications.
  • Hims and Hers Health, a company working to eliminate stigmas around health and wellness issues and break down barriers for people to obtain quality health care.
  • Telehealth Equity Coalition, an effort to improve access to quality and affordable health care by increasing adoption of telehealth.
  • American Indian Health Service of Chicago, an organization dedicated to providing quality health care to the American Indian and Alaskan Native communities and other underserved populations.
  • Digital Health Equity Summit, Nov. 3-4, 2021, has links to video presentations on topics such as advancing digital health equity for rural and underserved populations, delivering maternal health equity, and how virtual care is expanding access for vulnerable communities. Alternately, they’re available for viewing on YouTube
  • National Health IT Collaborative for the Underserved, an effort established in 2008 to engage underserved populations in the development and use of health information technology. NHIT represents national, regional, and local organizations focused on addressing health disparities using new and innovative technologies and peripheral mobile devices.
  • Massachusetts FQHC Telehealth Consortium, an organization seeking to eliminate health and digital disparities by building a model of sustainable, patient-centered and equitable telehealth practices throughout Massachusetts.
  • Strong Hearts Native Helpline for American Indians and Alaska Natives, a confidential domestic, dating and sexual violence helpline offering culturally appropriate support and advocacy.
  • Asian and Pacific Islander American Health Forum, a health advocacy organization working with Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities.
  • Addressing the Mental Health Needs of the AAPI Community, an op-ed published Sept. 1, 2021, in Health Affairs.
  • S.O.L.V.E. Health Tech, an effort housed at the University of California, San Francisco, to adapt health technology for Medicaid and other vulnerable populations.

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