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

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

“We are just now beginning to think about the digital future for healthcare, and we ought to be thinking about interactivity more than justice if we want to make interoperability, data exchange more dynamic and inclusive,” says Micky Tripathi, National Coordinator for Health Information Technology at the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Technology innovations such as telehealth, virtual second opinions, health trackers, patient portals and remote monitoring devices have been a boon to the healthcare industry given their ease of use, affordability and proactive nature. But at the same time, these innovations have also created further disparities in the healthcare system, as 15-24% of Americans do not have the skill sets needed to use the technology or lack access to broadband services. These issues persist in rural and urban areas where the incomes are less than $20,000 per year. Digital access must be considered as a social determinant of health in order to make healthcare more accessible and affordable.

Integrating a digital equity and inclusive strategy

Healthcare systems must weave in a digital equity strategy to support patients in their use of technology, to help them understand their healthcare information and to gain access to care efficiently. Additionally, reducing medical jargon and providing interpretive sources to ensure there are no language barriers would greatly help empower patients to take their health into their own hands.

Elevating digital literacy

Understanding what devices patients use and how they currently access their health information is a vital first step toward addressing these gaps. The next step is to create a plan to transition patients onto digital healthcare platforms so they can gain access to healthcare faster. People from low income backgrounds are often unable to make their health appointments on time due to transportation issues, immigration status concerns, language barriers and being unaware of the importance of addressing their health concerns. A digital health platform would greatly resolve these issues.

Expand community organization partnerships

Healthcare systems should also expand partnerships with community organizations to further facilitate digital literacy skills training and improve connectivity. Libraries not only offer the Internet but also provide a spectrum of training services from basic digital literacy to skills required for specific devices and applications. Some communities have leveraged health workers and patient navigators to screen patients and refer those in need to basic digital literacy trainings and to help find ways to improve connectivity.

Current initiatives to improve broadband access in America include:

  • Affordable Connectivity Program, a federal program that provides between $30 and $75 a month to households within certain income ranges. This program also provides a one-time discount to purchase a computer or tablet.
  • Lifeline Program, a federal program that gives people from eligible households a monthly discount for phone and internet services
  • Internet for All, an initiative by the federal government that provides funding—including the $65 million set aside in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law—to states, communities, and internet providers to improve planning, infrastructure, and adoption of high-speed internet.

To expand access, equity and most importantly make healthcare more proactive than reactive, digital access should be considered as a vital part of the social determinants of health equation.

Photo Credit: wigglestick, Getty Images

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