By Dominick Kennerson
June 29, 2021 at 7:21 am ET
These days it may seem like common ground in Washington, D.C., is nowhere to be found. But there is bipartisan agreement on one big thing: support for digital health. The work now is to harness this widespread enthusiasm in a way that actually fosters equitable health care outcomes.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the health sector was slowly but surely increasing its reliance on new technologies. There’s a good track record of political parties understanding the importance of this promising trend: As far back as 2004, George W. Bush created the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT by executive order, acknowledging the need for our nation’s health policy to respond to the digital revolution.
The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital health beyond all prior predictions. Because of the need to limit face-to-face contact, the federal government removed barriers to telehealth and increased coverage for it. The prior administration expanded telehealth coverage under federal insurance programs, and President Joe Biden has consistently pushed for increased support, including in our too-often-underserved rural communities.
In the new Congress, Sens. Dan Sullivan, a Republican from Alaska and Chris Murphy, a Democrat of Connecticut, have introduced the Leveraging Integrated Networks in Communities (LINC) to Address Social Needs Act of 2021. This bill provides seed money for states to boost technology networks and facilitate communication between health care and other service providers to help people live healthier and more productive lives.
Preserving expanded digital health even after the pandemic ends is a rare area of bipartisan agreement in Washington. Patients, providers and politicians now agree that digital health is real, it’s here to stay and we need more of it across the board. The experience and the resources are coming online in force.
But without the right vision of how digital health can address inequity, all we’ll be doing is pouring more money and data into a system that doesn’t work for everyone. Instead, we need to understand who’s neglected by our current way of caring for people’s health and how digital can help remedy this. That’s where the underpinnings for social determinants of health become evident.
As a Black American and U.S. expat, I approach my work mindful of the progress made to address social determinants of health in the context of access, equity and sustainability. Yet I am keenly aware that where we are now only represents a beginning. Today’s mission of using digital health to achieve health equity starts with creating public and private support for disease prevention and management to include those that may have been historically marginalized in the health care system. That’s how we broaden the pool of digital health consumers to create more sustainable and responsive health care.
This digital health market — and its associated services — now offers more tailored approaches from a people-driven experience. This means that the way we live each day, even in our most simple experiences, is now integrated with health, enabled by digital. For instance, picture an app that integrates map services with custom fitness goals. When the user walks home, they receive a nudge for a “heart-healthy” route. Similarly, when shopping or ordering food online or in a restaurant, there are digital health platforms that can offer information about nutritional content, and even suggest healthier options to eat.
The ultimate promise of digital health is to provide an intuitive level of integration to match a person’s life experience with where and when they are in their health care journey. In this paradigm, therapeutics can offer custom solutions based upon the smallest genome all the way to a large community experience. These more intuitive technologies, driven by large amounts of scalable data, enabled by machine learning and artificial intelligence, also mean that marginalized people have to have the same coded-system prioritization to eliminate algorithmic bias — this is equity. Ignoring this equity component, where AI is concerned, can lead to legal troubles for companies and reduces health system sustainability, so we have to get this right.
I am encouraged that our lawmakers and executive officers are able to work together to preserve and increase support for adoption of health technology. It’s a model for uniting the country at a time when the opportunity to do so seems clearer than ever. For the digital health ecosystem, we have to consciously commit to achieving equity, especially where data is concerned. More money and modernized regulations are necessary, but the real aim is to make digital health work for all.
Dominick Kennerson is Global Head of G4A Digital Health Partnerships at Bayer.
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