Building Health Equity: Exploring the Intersection of Patient Access and Digital Health Solutions 

Updated on July 31, 2023
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The COVID-19 pandemic reshaped societies and upended institutional norms, perhaps most acutely in healthcare. In a sector once dependent on physical proximity and in-person evaluation, there is now widespread acceptance of telehealth and other digital solutions, part of a larger trend of improving patient outcomes through innovation. However, the global health crisis also exposed the many flaws in systems, casting a light on the many communities that have historically lacked proper care due to systemic barriers related to gender, race, and other structural factors. 

The CDC defines health equity as “the state in which everyone has a fair and just opportunity to attain their highest level of health.” A noble aspiration, yet far from reality. Recent research confirms that social determinants of health (meaning, your unique social, economic, environmental, and community conditions) may have a stronger influence on your health than services delivered by healthcare practitioners. In other words, for millions of people around the world, how long and well you live depends largely on the situation you were born into. 

As a society, we’ve historically treated health as an individual problem – a burden of patients, or the responsibility of doctors. According to McKinsey, reducing inequities in health will require a “comprehensive, collaborative, and multi-faceted” approach, including investing in innovation and working to better engage underserved communities. The opportunity for technology, pharmaceutical, and life sciences companies is huge, but it’s also a “win-win” for the larger economy as patients live longer and healthier lives. Investors have caught onto this potential, and venture funding for digital health companies reached a record $29.1 billion in 2021. 

It’s at this nexus of science, technology, and communication where a paradigm shift in health equity is occurring. Here are four approaches to digital health solutions that healthcare and life sciences companies should employ to build the tools they need to increase patient access and reduce costs, critical elements for improving health equity.  

1. Adopt a Design Thinking Mindset 

Gaps in health equity can be hard to spot because many aspects of our care system are based on faulty assumptions that all patients have equal access. Medical bureaucracy can be complicated to navigate and not everyone has the ability (or time) to travel long distances for treatment. Digital technology can narrow these equity gaps, and improving access starts with design thinking that can better reach previously excluded or underrepresented groups. 

For those with less access, mobile phones are often the central point of communication. Research has shown that more than 96% of the world’s population now lives within reach of a mobile phone signal and studies have demonstrated that this infrastructure can be used to measurably improve health outcomes. Design thinking offers a way to prioritize and incorporate patient needs and feedback throughout the development process of any digital health solution. To do so requires a human-led approach, bringing together a multi-disciplinary team of designers and digital architects to create more personalized patient journey maps that can improve individual experiences based on tech accessibility, reduce bias, and enhance efficiencies. 

2. Leverage Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning (AI/ML) 

Any progress toward greater health equity begins with clinical trials: research that evaluates the impact of care on health-related biomedical or behavioral outcomes. People may experience the same disease differently, but clinical trials have relied “almost exclusively” on White male study participants, limiting our understanding of diseases and treatment effectiveness across populations. The pandemic accelerated the development of digital clinical trials that increased access for underserved communities, and advanced technology like AI/ML is now optimizing those experiences. 

The key to improving digital clinical trials is iteration, and this is where AI/ML can play a pivotal role by crunching huge amounts of patient data to create a more equitable picture of patient populations. For this to be done effectively, healthcare and life sciences (HCLS) professionals need to continuously monitor data alongside their tech partners, creating guidelines to ensure data gathering is representative of patients being served and remaining vigilant to any potential risks or biases that could exacerbate disparities. Implemented at scale, this type of innovation has vast potential. According to Harvard’s School of Public Health, AI can potentially save the medical industry upward of $150 billion in costs by 2025.  

3. Collaborate and be Agile Based on Learnings 

Solving a large social problem like health equity must involve all key stakeholders, from the clinicians and digital partners to the caregivers and ultimately patients themselves. It may take time to educate all parties about the urgency of health equity (and the dangers of ignoring it), and experts suggest setting transparent milestones to help expedite the process. By sharing progress with the community, “you bring people along with you – which can help you achieve health equity outcomes faster” and ensure everyone feels represented. 

Much like other digital transformations, innovation doesn’t stop once a product is deployed. Iteration and constant feedback are, again, necessary for widespread adoption, and collaborative technology helps field multiple perspectives that can yield more equitable outcomes. For example, there is not one type of cancer, nor is there one treatment plan. Digital solutions facilitate better communication and coming together on complex issues to find unique solutions is paramount for innovation. 

4. Focus on Personalized Health 

According to a study by the Lancet, the increasing digitization of healthcare has led to wearable devices becoming a frequent contributor to healthcare decisions, with one in five adults in the US now using a wearable device. While devices like these provide objective data that can enhance patient experience, multiple analyses also show that wearable devices and other digital technologies are “not used as widely in low-income and minority populations,” thereby limiting representative data.  

By continuing to integrate wearable devices, data dashboards, and gamification into employer-sponsored wellness programs, there is a hope that overall health equity will improve. However, this rollout must be done carefully to mitigate risk, and guidelines are being developed in tandem to address privacy and security concerns associated with digital health solutions, safeguard patient data, and ensure compliance with regulators.  

The Future of Digital Health Equity 

Digital health solutions make it possible to harness patient data in real time, improve early-stage decision-making, and increase access to treatment, all while reducing the historically high costs of traditional care. Beyond the obvious benefits to patients, this is an enormous moment for almost every pharmaceutical and life sciences company to transform healthcare into a more effective, representative, and equitable ecosystem.  

Ganesh Nathella
Ganesh Nathella
SVP & General Manager at Persistent Systems
Ganesh Nathella, SVP & General Manager - Global Lead of Healthcare and Life Sciences Business at Persistent Systems, has more than 25 years of experience in the technology industry of which little over 18 years with customers in the Health segment comprising Payer, Provider, Med devices, Health technology, Intermediaries and Pharmaceutical segment. He counsels leading organizations in health industry on strategy, growth, margin improvement, business building and large-scale transformations through use of digital, data, cloud and enterprise technology.