Access to healthcare is an unsolved problem worldwide, and it is particularly pronounced in the United States. The problem stems from long-standing structural and systemic inequalities, which are responsible for the growth of health disparities. Not only is addressing health and healthcare disparities crucial for promoting social justice and equity, it also plays a vital role in enhancing the nation’s overall health and economic well-being.
According to a recent report published by The Commonwealth Fund, despite spending the most on healthcare, the United States has the worst health outcomes when compared to other high-income nations. This report shows that the United States spends more on healthcare per capita than any other country but ranks last in overall health system performance. As an illustration, the life expectancy at birth in the United States was 77 years in 2020, which is three years lower than the average of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
The poor outcomes delivered by the United States’ problematic health model often disproportionately affect the most vulnerable members of the population, including those facing social determinants of health (SDOH) such as social, economic, or environmental disadvantages. These individuals often do not receive the care they need when they need it most, fueling health disparities among race, age, or other factors nationwide. People who can’t access necessary medical care are more likely to experience avoidable complications, require hospitalization, suffer from emotional distress, and incur greater expenses.
Besides these social justice and equity considerations, health disparities come at a significant cost. An analysis estimates that such disparities result in roughly $93 billion in excess medical care expenses and $42 billion in lost productivity each year. These findings highlight the importance of addressing and reducing health disparities to improve health outcomes and mitigate economic consequences.
On top of this, we are suffering a new global pandemic: the lack of health professionals. Particularly exacerbated in the U.S., where according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the country could face a shortfall of 21,000 and 55,000 primary care doctors by 2023. The AAMC also projects that by 2034 there will be a deficit of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians. The lack of health professionals is a problem not unique to the U.S. but also present worldwide. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are about 65 million healthcare workers globally, and it predicts a 10 million health professionals deficiency by 2030. The insufficiency of health professionals leads to many difficulties in healthcare delivery, especially in rural areas.
Leveraging Technology to Drive Patients to the Right Level of Care at the Right Time
Although the necessary components to effectively deal with this situation are complex, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Healthy People 2030 objectives identify reducing the proportion of people who can’t get medical care when they need it as one of the essential measures to improving access to healthcare. Due to the United States’ complex healthcare landscape involving various individuals, institutions, organizations, and resources will require a healthcare delivery infrastructure capable of providing rapid and effective access to care.
People are already googling their symptoms online when they require medical assistance. According to a survey conducted by Eligibility.com, 89% of patients google their health symptoms before going to their doctor. But this is not a solution to the problem, as making decisions based on non-professional sources can only lead to erroneous results. Ensuring optimal patient care begins with utilizing the latest technological advancements to implement a seamless referral system that provides a prompt assessment of symptoms and directs individuals to the most appropriate level of care within this complex network, wherever they are, whether that be via text, voice assistant, over the phone, or in person.
Nowadays, Artificial Intelligence (AI)-based technologies have proven to predict illness effectively, distinguish the urgency level of disease, prevent significant health events, and offer a clinically precise pre-diagnosis. Not only does this approach enhance the patient experience by minimizing waiting time between symptom onset and treatment initiation, but it also has the potential to alleviate the overwhelming demand on healthcare providers. AI will not substitute health professionals but enable efficiency, empowering patients and assisting in their decisions safely.
Overcome Barriers that Exacerbate Health Inequity
Additionally, disparities due to variations in language, culture, race, or socioeconomic background commonly result in lower quality of care and worse health outcomes. Although disparities have been acknowledged and documented for decades, and there have been general enhancements in population health over time, several inequalities have endured and, in some instances, expanded. Healthcare organizations need to be aware of this and provide the proper tools and technology to enable patients to converse naturally and openly for a more accurate depiction of the situations they face.
Natural Language Processing and machine learning are two sophisticated technologies that, when combined, allow patients to express themselves with their own words, overcoming literacy barriers or misspelled words. Enabling access to healthcare for everyone on time is possible through a seamless conversation with an AI-based assistant capable of processing multiple languages. AI-powered triage systems can analyze patients’ symptoms and medical history, offer recommendations, and direct them to the most suitable level of care, streamlining the initial assessment process.
Moreover, due to the shortage of healthcare providers, particularly in underserved areas, individuals may face long wait times for appointments, which can result in delays in care, missed diagnoses, and worsened health outcomes. Overcoming this obstacle is possible with the aid of digital care navigation, which enables patients to receive efficient and accurate guidance, minimizing unnecessary visits and wasted resources.
Ensure Personalized Resources for Marginalized Populations to Give Inclusive Medical Diagnoses and Decisions
To increase social fairness and equity in healthcare, the modern healthcare system must also no longer cater solely to a select few and must be adaptable to meet the needs of all. Individuals and groups, including LGTBIQ+ and non-binary communities, should be free from unfair bias, discrimination and stigmatization.
Accomplishing this relies on defining relevant points at a medical level that allow healthcare professionals to obtain the most accurate picture of their patients and their unique needs and circumstances. Establishing a dependable and ethically-based AI system can transform healthcare and enhance societal well-being while mitigating the disproportionate impact of inequities on the most vulnerable populations. This flexibility and adaptability are inherent in new technologies. AI has the potential to revolutionize care navigation by incorporating functions that address the needs of the entire community.
Improving Access to Care for All
Artificial Intelligence chatbots and assisted decision-making technologies can play a relevant role in overcoming common inefficiencies and errors while complementing the work of healthcare professionals in support of streamlined care navigation and improved access to care for all. AI’s potential in healthcare may be unlocked through the synergy between human expertise and the sophistication of algorithms. This groundbreaking technology can revolutionize healthcare by enhancing patient care from diagnosis to treatment while streamlining administrative processes. It can improve access to care for all, irrespective of socioeconomic, gender, or geographic barriers.
There will be a day in the near future when we will not be able to access healthcare professionals without prior assessing symptoms with Artificial Intelligence. This day we will achieve more sustainable, affordable, and inclusive healthcare for everyone.
Cristian Pascual is an industrial engineer and MBA. For 19 years he held various top management positions in large companies before founding Mediktor, the most advanced AI-based medical assistant for triage and pre-diagnosis. In addition, he is an angel investor in more than 20 startups.
He is an entrepreneur with more than 10 years of real-life experience immersed in the Digital Health Ecosystems in US, Europe and Latin America.