Digital Equity as a Social Determinant of Health – 3 Ways to Empower Patients

Social determinants of health reflect the conditions in the environment in which an individual is born, lives, works, plays and worships. These conditions have a direct impact on an individual’s health status, functioning, and quality of life. Given the recent pandemic, there has been an increase in the need to meet people where they are and facilitate proactive healthcare. The aim is to reduce healthcare costs, address health concerns at an early stage, and most importantly, make access to healthcare easier, affordable and equitable.

“We’re starting to think about the digital future of healthcare right now, and if we want to make data exchange more dynamic and inclusive, we need to think about interaction more than just interoperability,” says Micky Tripathi, National Coordinator for Health Information Technology. at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Technological innovations such as telehealth, virtual second opinions, health monitors, patient portals and remote monitoring devices have been a boon to the healthcare industry given its ease of use, affordability and proactive nature. But at the same time, these innovations have created further inequality in the health care system, as 15-24% of Americans lack the necessary skills to use technology or lack access to broadband services. These problems persist in rural and urban areas where incomes are less than $20,000 per year. To make healthcare more accessible and affordable, digital access should be seen as a social determinant of health.

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Integrating a digital equality and inclusive strategy

Healthcare systems must be woven with a digital equity strategy to support patients in their use of technology, helping them understand health information and gain efficient access to care. Additionally, reducing medical jargon and providing interpretive resources to ensure there are no language barriers will greatly help patients take their health into their own hands.

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Rising digital literacy

Understanding what devices patients use and how they currently access health information is a vital first step towards addressing these gaps. The next step is to create a plan for patients’ transition to digital healthcare platforms so they can access health faster. People from low-income backgrounds are often unable to get medical appointments on time due to transportation problems, immigration concerns, language barriers, and unawareness of the importance of addressing health issues. A digital health platform would solve these problems to a large extent.

Expand community organization partnerships

Health systems should also expand partnerships with community organizations to further streamline digital literacy skills training and improve connectivity. Libraries not only offer the Internet, but also a range of training services, from basic digital literacy to the skills required for specific devices and applications. Some communities have leveraged healthcare professionals and patient guides to screen patients and guide those in need to basic digital literacy training and help find ways to improve connectivity.

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Current initiatives to improve broadband access in the United States include:

  • Affordable Connectivity Program is a federal program that provides $30 to $75 per month to households in certain income ranges. This program also provides a one-time discount for purchasing a computer or tablet.
  • The Lifeline Program, a federal program that provides monthly discounts for telephone and internet services to people in eligible households
  • Internet for All is a federal government initiative (including the $65 million earmarked in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act) that provides funding to states, communities, and internet providers to improve the planning, infrastructure, and adoption of high-speed internet.

To broaden access, equity, and most importantly, make healthcare proactive rather than reactive, digital access must be seen as a vital part of the equation of social determinants of health.

Photo Credit: wiggle bar, Getty Images

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