Digital health for healthcare equity
July 24, 2023
Health equity – the absence of avoidable or unjust disparities in health outcomes – is a critical goal for healthcare systems worldwide. The World Health Organization (WHO) states that healthcare equity will be achieved when “everyone can attain their full potential for health and well-being.” A great idea in principle; but as we are all acutely aware, numerous factors such as socioeconomic status, geographical location, and access to healthcare services contribute to significant disparities in healthcare outcomes globally.
Data from WHO’s Health Inequality Data Repository, published in April this year, highlights this. According to WHO: “In just a decade, the rich-poor gap in health service coverage among women, newborns and children in low-and middle-income countries has nearly halved. They also reveal that, in these countries, eliminating wealth-related inequality in under-five mortality could help save the lives of 1.8 million children.”
Far-reaching digital health solutions are key
Harnessing the power of digital solutions presents a valuable opportunity to address health inequity. Digital health innovators can pave the way for their products to contribute to achieving equitable healthcare outcomes in a few incredible ways.
One key opportunity for digital tools is to increase healthcare access, particularly in remote or underserved areas. Telemedicine and mobile health applications can bridge geographical barriers, allowing patients to connect with healthcare providers remotely. This expanded access ensures that individuals, regardless of their location, can receive the healthcare they need – levelling the playing field.
Personalisation of care is another area where digital tools can contribute to health equity. By tailoring interventions to individual needs, digital health solutions address unmet needs and ensure that patients receive the right care, at the right time. Artificial intelligence (AI) and data analytics can analyse patient data, providing personalised recommendations that improve diagnosis accuracy and treatment outcomes. Predictive analytics can also be used to help healthcare systems understand risk, particularly when it comes to falls and older people. This type of approach recognises the unique circumstances and challenges faced by individuals, helping to ensure equitable care delivery.
Understanding the historical context and unique characteristics of communities is crucial for promoting health equity. By considering cultural, social, and economic factors, digital health innovators can design solutions that meet the specific needs and preferences of the target population. This approach overcomes barriers and biases that contribute to health inequities, leading to more inclusive, equitable healthcare solutions.
Recognising these three areas of opportunity – increased healthcare access, personalised care, and contextual understanding – enables digital health innovators to develop and scale their products for meaningful impact. Collaboration with healthcare providers, community organisations, and policymakers is crucial to align digital solutions with health equity goals and effectively address the challenges faced by marginalised populations.
A recent study conducted by WHO sheds light on unequal access to digital health technologies in Europe, raising concerns about equitable healthcare delivery. Individuals with poor health face significant challenges in accessing these technologies, despite their potential to improve healthcare access and enhance capabilities. This highlights the urgency of addressing these disparities to ensure equitable access to digital health tools, especially for those with underlying health conditions.
Digital health technology empowers patients
Digital health technology can empower patients. Mobile health apps and wearable devices enable individuals to monitor their health, access educational information, and engage in self-care. By empowering patients to make informed decisions and actively participate in their treatment plans, digital health promotes equity and enables individuals from all backgrounds to manage their health and well-being.
Furthermore, digital health technologies improve care coordination by enabling the secure sharing of patient information through electronic health records. This promotes equitable treatment across different healthcare settings, ensuring individuals receive appropriate and timely care, regardless of their location or socioeconomic status.
Areas of work to help make health more equitable include:
- Appointment scheduling apps and virtual triage systems help reduce waiting times, ensuring timely access to care.
- Digital health enables secure sharing of health information among healthcare providers, promoting continuity of care and reducing medical errors. This ensures consistent and coordinated care for individuals, regardless of the healthcare setting.
- Advanced analytics and population health management systems help identify and address health disparities. By focusing resources on vulnerable populations, digital health supports equitable healthcare delivery.
The challenges and opportunities ahead
However, several challenges and limitations must be addressed. Bridging the digital divide is also crucial: limited access to technology, inadequate digital literacy, and connectivity issues hinder equitable use. Efforts must be focused on improving access to technology, providing digital literacy programs, and ensuring reliable internet connectivity in underserved areas. We also need to recognise that access to the internet is not universal – a high percentage of older people are still not able to take advantage of the benefits it offers. And this is before anyone has even mentioned those immortal words ‘data privacy’.
Collaboration and bridging the digital divide are both essential when ensuring equitable access to digital health tools. By embracing digital health, healthcare systems can work towards achieving equitable healthcare outcomes across the world.
Learn more about the healthcare work we do at FINN Partners’ health practice here.