Guest Column | August 8, 2022

Digital Health Products Can Reduce Healthcare Disparities — If We Take Action

By Tanisha Hill, Teva Pharmaceuticals and the Digital Health for Equitable Health Alliance

digital tablet GettyImages-1373659740

Despite the pace of innovation in healthcare today, underrepresented populations across America are not receiving optimal care. Healthcare disparities continue to exist across disease states and demographics and can have a significant impact on health outcomes. Through digital healthcare innovations like telehealth and digital therapeutics, the industry can — and should — begin to address these disparities and shortcomings.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a visible shift toward remote care as patients and providers embraced telehealth, which had not taken hold prior to the pandemic. The result was broader adoption of telehealth, as it became a critical tool for ensuring uninterrupted access to care during the pandemic. But there is still progress to be made in leveraging digital health to address the unmet needs of underrepresented populations.

Teva recently commissioned The Harris Poll to survey almost 4,200 adult consumers, along with 602 healthcare providers (HCPs), to examine the COVID-19 pandemic impact on healthcare and medication access from the perspectives of healthcare consumers and healthcare professionals. What we found may affect how we think about the future of digital tools in healthcare and the promise of equity in America. Among the key takeaways, we learned:

  • 44% of Hispanics, 35% of Blacks, and 14% of Asians versus only 7% of people who identify as white reported significantly more difficulty accessing a good doctor or healthcare facility
  • 1 in 5 people of color reported having difficulty accessing medications that were prescribed to them during the pandemic versus approximately 1 in 7 white Americans
  • 45% of Americans reported using telehealth more than before the pandemic, but telehealth visits were more common among high-income, high-education, and urban segments
  • 63% of people of color intend to use digital apps and telehealth more going forward but 36%-54% of healthcare providers say that their patients from low-income households do not have the means to access telehealth easily.

This data demonstrates the increasing utilization and importance of telehealth, but it also highlights the growing disparities in digital health that continue to reinforce the already existing digital divide. While there is potential for digital health to be the vehicle in which we can move toward a more equitable healthcare system, addressing gaps in care to achieve greater equality will require multifaceted solutions and collaboration to create and implement meaningful and sustainable change. The potential lies within the following key areas:

Products: By creating and leveraging “smart” products that enhance connected care, platforms can improve health outcomes by helping patients and HCPs better manage a chronic condition remotely — and with better tools. However, the first step to creating health equity in technology is ensuring that the products themselves are equitable. This requires intentional thought. For example, telehealth platforms must provide accessibility for those who do not speak English and closed captioning services for those who are hearing impaired. Additionally, research on digital technologies should include appropriate representation of people of color in underrepresented populations.  Every base must be covered to ensure complete usability across all people.

Literacy: While patients may have access to more of their health information because of digital platforms such as telehealth and online portals, digital literacy is a prevalent barrier that blocks many patients from these services. There needs to be a thoughtful approach to user experience, site design, and navigation systems to ensure these platforms are accessible to patients with low digital literacy. Community-based digital health experts could provide additional support and education to those with minimal digital literacy.

Coverage: Successful, long-term expansion of telehealth is also hindered by a lack of standardized reimbursement policies for telehealth technologies. Insurance coverage of telehealth varies by state and plan — subject to rapid change in response to updated regulations. As a result, patients and physicians alike often face hefty price points. A standardized approach to reimbursement and coverage for digital health is an important start to ensuring wider access to crucial digitally enabled technologies and remote healthcare related services.

Broadband: Today, there are far too many Americans who lack reliable high-speed internet. Large-scale expansion of broadband internet access (including fiber, wireless, or satellite technology) is essential, and distribution of secure mobile Wi-Fi hotspots and video-compatible devices to patients who lack these necessary resources can also help close the gap.

Ultimately, it will take the entire village to close the health equity gap — and that includes community organizations, industry, government, and academia.  Everyone has a role in identifying and addressing barriers that stand in the way of achieving access to quality and equitable care for all. Technology is one of the tools that we can use to begin to address healthcare disparities in our current healthcare system and incite social change.

Healthcare design expert Kim Erwin and population health expert Jerry Krishnan have noted that “the key is to shift our focus from helping people to fit our care delivery system, to one where we design our care delivery system to fit people where they live, work, learn, play, and receive healthcare.” Technological advances make it possible for us to rethink and redesign healthcare systems in ways that both deliver care more effectively and promote greater health equity for patients.

We believe that the future of healthcare is headed in the right direction and — as long as we harness the power of digital health technologies — we can shift toward a more equitable healthcare system where patients everywhere can access high-quality care that results in better health and improved outcomes.

About The Author:

Tanisha Hill is senior U.S. medical director, respiratory & digital health, at Teva Pharmaceuticals. She is also the founder and president of the Digital Health for Equitable Health Alliance, which is a non-profit organization with the mission to improve access to care in underserved populations using digital health. Hill has more than 25 years of experience in the healthcare industry spanning government, clinical practice management, clinical research, social marketing, health communications, and pharmaceuticals, and has 10 years of experience in digital health.