Opinion: Using technology to help heal health care disparities

For the first time in its 54-year history, CES (formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show) is all digital this week.

Technology, some of which was highlighted in previous shows, has helped save us during the coronavirus pandemic, letting us work, learn, and connect remotely. Telemedicine made it possible to see doctors virtually, with no risk of infection to anyone. Wearables help us track our own health and wellness and watch for early signs of viral infection. And remote monitoring devices allow us to care for family members when we can’t be there in person.

Despite these advances, the U.S. faces disparities in access to care and treatment across racial, socioeconomic, and geographical lines. Individuals from low-income communities, the chronically ill, and older Americans are among the many communities often overlooked in our health care system, with tragic consequences: Black and Hispanic Americans, along with American Indians and Alaska Natives, have higher hospitalization rates for Covid-19 than white Americans.

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In New York City, Black Americans make up 22% of the population, but 28% of Covid-19 deaths. Hispanic Americans are 29% of New York City’s population but represent 34% of Covid-19 deaths. In Michigan, 33% of Covid-19 cases and 40% of deaths have been people of color, but they account for just 14% of the state’s population.

To help address these disparities, the Consumer Technology Association, the organization I lead, and the Connected Health Initiative have convened health and technology companies, allied groups, and government leaders ranging from Best Buy Health and Boston Children’s Hospital to Google, the American Medical Association, Microsoft, and Validic to create the Health Equity and Access Leadership (HEAL) Coalition. It will examine new ways to better leverage the use of technology to mitigate health disparities across diverse demographics, geographies, and communities.

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Lack of trust in the medical community by racially and ethnically diverse groups and lack of access to affordable medical care play big roles in these disparities. Low-income individuals are also more likely to rely on a clinic or emergency room facilities — which are more likely to accept people without insurance — rather than a doctor’s office as their primary source of care.

Rural and urban communities also have disparities. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that rural Americans are more likely to die from heart disease, cancer, unintentional injury, chronic lower respiratory disease, and stroke than those living in urban environments.

New technologies can improve the health and wellness of these and other underrepresented groups. Connected devices such as blood sugar monitors, blood pressure cuffs, and heart rate monitors are prime examples of technology at work. These devices are designed to keep people healthy, and make it possible for clinicians to stay updated on their patients’ status during the pandemic.

Across CES 2021, digital health companies will showcase innovations that promise even more innovative health care for all.

A recent study from the Consumer Technology Association shows growing consumer enthusiasm for digital health innovations. Six in 10 people who used telehealth or remote services for mental health before the pandemic said they were more likely to use the services after it has been quelled.

Yet underrepresented groups are being left behind in the use of connected health devices.

Millions of Americans who are part of underserved communities use mobile devices. They rely on their devices to text, complete job applications, bank online, hail a rideshare, browse social media, and access the internet. These devices can also be gateways to improving access to care, decreasing health costs, and improving health and wellness.

At CES 2021, we’re seeing firsthand how innovation in digital health is enhancing the patient experience and empowering consumers to take control of their wellness. But the industry must understand and address the digital gap that allows the Covid-19 pandemic and other health issues to expose the unequal burden of illness and death in our nation’s communities.

I believe that the HEAL public-private collaboration will call attention to these gaps and find meaningful ways to deliver change even as innovation helps us bridge the gap to build stronger, healthier, more equitable health systems that work for everyone.

Gary Shapiro is the president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, the producer of CES.

Source: STAT