Tuesday, Feb 14, 2023

How Digital Health Can Help Heal Care Inequity

Manav SevakCo-founder & CEO, Memora Health

HLTH Foundation

How digital health companies are missing the mark on equity – and how they can help bridge gaps in patient experience

Memora Health CEO, Manav Sevak, discusses how digital healthcare can help heal equity gaps across the industry.

Care teams perform outstanding work every day. And, in many ways, digital health innovations have helped providers deliver – and some patients navigate – care. 

Recent technological leaps have meant the difference between patients suffering from certain illnesses and getting back on their feet faster than ever before. AI-driven digital assistance helps make surgeries less invasive. Reflecting consumers in other industries, like retail and travel, people leverage online review sites to research care providers before deciding who to see.

But closing the loop to provide everyone a seamless, high-quality A-to-Z patient experience – not just the advantaged few – continues to challenge our sector. And it’s one that digital health still grapples with.  

Health Inequity Doesn’t Just Happen in Hospitals

When we discuss healthcare inequality, many people think of disparities in hospitals. But much of what goes into staying healthy happens outside of doctor visits. Factors like family income, education, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), and other social determinants of health significantly impact outcomes.

One stand-out social determinant of health is access to care. For instance, according to the American Hospital Association (AHA), an annual 3.6 million patients don’t get the care they need because they lack transportation — with rural communities particularly affected.

This lack of accessibility challenging the U.S. healthcare system has exploded our health-equity crisis. Health disparities amount to over $90 billion a year in excess medical costs, placing further strain on a sector already thinned-out by a global pandemic and monumental staff shortages. 

Digital Health Still Struggles to Close the Loop

That’s not to say solution-providers haven’t begun addressing inequality in healthcare access. Enacting the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act in 2009 and ACA in 2010 ushered in a decade of digital healthcare innovation. It seems as though a new care-related smartphone app springs up every day to help schedule doctor visits, view health results, or conduct telehealth appointments.

But are these platforms built for everyone? How well do health apps level the playing field when it comes to accessing high-quality care?

Let’s look at the numbers. Pew Research found that, while 97% of people in the U.S. had a mobile phone as of 2021, only 85% had a smartphone and just 77% had a broadband connection at home. And the same study found that 24% of the lowest-income bracket in the U.S. does not have a smartphone, mostly due to cost. 

According to the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT, around 60% of U.S. patients were provided with a patient portal in 2020, but less than 40% of them ever logged in – some didn’t have internet access, while others experienced friction with digital app navigation. Historically marginalized and underserved populations experience digital inequity to an even greater extent. For example, Black residents in the rural South are almost twice as likely to lack home-internet access as their white counterparts. 

Location also plays a factor, as 13% of non-metropolitan residents lack basic broadband access for telehealth visits — almost double the rate of their urban counterparts.

These figures paint a troubling picture, suggesting digital health still has a long road ahead, especially when it comes to the patients who most need care.

Healthtech can help providers elevate and streamline care for patients – not just for those who can afford it, but for everyone. But how do these solutions address inequity without adding extra work for our clinical staff?

SMS is an Answer to Improving Patient Navigation For All

One of the biggest challenges healthtech innovators face is making their advancements more accessible. That’s why Memora Health has chosen to make meeting patients where they are a key priority. Equity is at the center of our equation – and SMS is our driver for closing the loop.

You might ask, “why wouldn’t you just build your own patient-facing app?”

The fact is that healthcare’s highest-risk patients usually don’t keep fitness or health apps on their home screens. But their messaging icon is always front and center. A 2018 AARP study found that 86% of adults aged 50+ communicate through text, meaning SMS is a widely adopted communication channel that spans generations. 

Beyond texting’s broad accessibility, it's incredibly effective. SMS health interventions have a 98% read rate – and patients actually complete and engage with over 74% of text-based interventions, according to our data. 

We already witness the equity benefits of our text-based approach. One of the most resounding examples is the work we’ve done in women’s health – keeping patients highly engaged during the postpartum period to make sure they have the high-touch support they need to manage healing at home with a newborn. 

Over half of the patients in one of Memora’s postpartum programs are on public insurance and in lower socioeconomic brackets. Yet that program, which guides patients through their postpartum journeys, has yielded over 90% care-journey completion and screenings of 25% of patients at risk for postpartum depression. Engagement at this level makes a significant difference in helping care teams know who needed extra support.

Most importantly, it’s made patients feel cared for when they need it most. The program boasts a 92% patient satisfaction rate, with Black moms in particular scoring significantly higher than their peers. 

There’s no silver bullet when it comes to addressing health inequities. But digital health can play a part. By meeting patients where they are with SMS and automating care team workflows, it’s possible to improve patient navigation, reduce the burden on providers, and minimize friction across the board. 

Imagine a world where every patient leaves the doctor with a digital companion holding their hand through their entire care journey. Let’s empower patients to take control of their health – and get us one step closer to a healthcare system that is accessible, responsive, and always-on.

Download Memora’s health-equity whitepaper to learn more about improving access to care at your organization.

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