Finding Health Equity With the Internet of (Healthcare) Things
The World Health Organization estimates that there are 13 million deaths worldwide occurring due to avoidable environmental causes. And while current events have drawn attention to the global impact of infectious diseases, another widespread threat to humanity is the climate crisis. The climate crisis is also considered a major health crisis because of its devastating consequences. It’s an example of healthcare issues seeing no geographic, ethnic, or economic boundary lines in how they unfurl and affect global citizens. The climate crisis and environmental health is an area of focus for the World Health Organization’s World Health Day initiative.
On World Health Day, celebrated on April 7th, we take a moment to reflect on the crucial actions needed to achieve the goal of Health for All. It’s a principle that guides our digital health initiatives and it is why we focus on the three tenets of equity, access, and sustainability.
Health Equity for All
While health equality (equal opportunities for all) may sound like an idyllic end-state goal, health equity is the vehicle by which most nations can equalize health through offering opportunities based on individual needs.
The global upheaval of the COVID-19 pandemic harshly brought to light the extent of inequity in healthcare systems everywhere. It also helped to uncover just how disparate and disconnected our systems can be when the need arises to collect, share, and analyze health data for the benefit of humankind. It’s a reality that accelerated the rate of innovation, with some companies leaping forward internal operations by three to four years. In pharma, 35% of executives expressed that their organizations were pressed to accelerate digital adoption by five years to meet the new normal’s demands.
With such a profound shakeup of the healthcare sector, the social determinants of health (SDoH) are now truly unignorable. Meaningful action must be taken to help achieve health equity and re-balance the ability of all people to be as healthy as possible. Leveraging digital health solutions is a way to offer increased relevance to broader populations through the power of scalability and customization. Through artificial intelligence (AI), digital health can individualize recommendations ranging from nutrition to medication to exercise. In addition, the power of digital health is exponentially mighty when supporting the care of underrepresented or marginalized communities. For example, there was a notable difference of telehealth use among LGBTQ populations during the pandemic (49% of LGBTQ people used telehealth versus 34% of non-LGBTQ people). The proportion of telehealth access for mental health services was also observed to be higher among LGBTQ people (25%) than non-LGBTQ telehealth users (14%).
Health Access for All
In parallel to providing more diverse and equitable availability of digital health interventions, healthcare companies must remember to adequately support the technology inequalities that are more common among vulnerable groups, such as the elderly, migrants, the disabled, and people experiencing homelessness.
Providing healthcare access for all must take into consideration four key elements :
- Coverage that can facilitate entry into the healthcare system, particularly for the uninsured less likely to seek or receive care (and more likely to have poor health)
- Services that can maintain continuity of care, whether they be primary care, screenings, or preventative care
- Timely access to provide care, particularly when a pressing need is identified
- A workforce that’s not only capable, qualified, and culturally sensitive but also well-cared for and supported
Using these elements as guiding principles in digital health innovation and in healthcare systems themselves can help enhance patient experience and outcomes while driving major change within organizations, too.
Afterall, it’s not just about having more services and technologies available—it’s about empowering individuals to be able to access them regardless of economic, social, or technological barriers or other demographic factors. This involves accounting for infrastructure and devices, Internet access, and educational requirements in ensuring that technology and interventions are accessible as intended or needed (for patients as well as for physicians). Further educational or resource support for healthcare professionals (HCPs) to prescribe digital health solutions can not only help support patient adoption but also reduce healthcare costs and improve their work lives.
Health Sustainability for All
Building sustainable health for all is one of the 17 goals driving the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Adopted by all member nations in 2015, this blueprint for sustainable development includes imperatives like zero hunger, clean water and sanitation, and climate action. While many of the goals identified in this agenda have already been significantly shaped by technology and innovation, the goal of ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all and at all ages (in an equitable way) continues to be an area where digital health can accelerate change.
As outlined above, digital health has the power and capability to both deepen and expand the access and availability of healthcare resources, but perhaps what’s yet to be fully realized is its ultimate scalability potential. Leveraging digital health can have significant economic or cost savings on healthcare systems already observed through cultural shifts like moving to telehealth-first interventions or self-serve apps. And, to some degree, digital health may also have positive environmental effects, say, in limiting transit needs, physical resources, and waste.
By bringing the power of digital to the forefront of healthcare, patient experience can improve with potentially more frequent or timelier access to care. Additionally, digital health will likely continue to promote more effective disease prevention made possible by lifestyle and behavior change guidance found in many self-serve resources and apps.
As a result of the pandemic, the UN reports that 90% of countries are still experiencing disruptions to essential healthcare services. The trickle-down effects include shortened life expectancies and the significant slowing of progress and innovation in various treatment areas. Digital health can help close some of these gaps, or at the very least decrease some of the ground that’s been lost over the past few years.
The digital health market value is expected to surpass $504.4 billion USD by 2025, making it one of the most attractive areas to innovate and invest in (some forecasts call for market values upwards of $534 billion). Scaling up investments in digital health will continue to be an essential part of reimagining the healthcare system to meet the needs and challenges of future generations to come.