One of the many concepts that have entered the public consciousness due to COVID-19 is the idea of healthcare equity. Issues of race are being brought up with respect to voting and education, but specifically within healthcare, the focus has been on access to quality medical care and equal treatment by medical professionals. In today's post, we'll look at some of the ways innovative technologies can help make healthcare more equitable.
Research has demonstrated repeatedly that healthcare disparities by race exist in our nation. This means that access and outcomes are not solely based on a biological difference, but also on societal differences called "social determinants of health", including socioeconomic factors, access and trust issues, and variations in treatment. In a recent survey, for example, half of White medical students incorrectly believed that Black patients possess biological differences that make them feel less pain. These, and many other inaccurate beliefs, compounded by unconscious biases, mean extensive, intentional work needs to take place to ensure that all patients are treated equally.
But what can be done now? As with other areas where the human fallibility negatively impacts outcomes, there are innovative technologies that take the human element, and any of these preconceived notions, out of the equation.
#1 Artificial Intelligence: When programmed with bias-free algorithms, artificial intelligence (AI) can help ensure healthcare equity. In case triage, where data and imaging are reviewed to make treatment decisions, AI can look beyond race, insurance status, or other irrelevant factors and determine the best course of action for positive patient outcomes. Eliminating bias from these algorithms is critical: Machine learning, for example, can learn from patterns without being limited by outdated beliefs about race (and gender, and age, etc.).
#2 Telehealth: Telehealth boomed during the pandemic, which helped control the spread of COVID but also encouraged more individuals to seek out medical care they might not have otherwise done. Telehealth enables clients to speak to a doctor even if they don't have reliable transportation, have children to care for, or work multiple jobs that don't give time off. All these benefits that others experience as a convenience can actually lead to medical equity, as they remove obstacles to medical care. More frequent and positive contact with a medical provider also builds trust, which in turn leads to more frequent medical care and more patient compliance.
#3 Biocidal Surfaces: You may not think of infection control and prevention when you think about healthcare disparities. However, the successful implementation of an infection control program to limit hospital-associated infections relies on many steps that can be adversely affected by bias. The data supports this conclusion: Black patients are more likely to contract Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) while in the hospital, have higher mortality due to C. difficile infections (despite lower incidence rates), and have higher rates of central line infections (CLABSI). Infection control efficacy is influenced by many factors, including staffing, supplies, training, and hospital culture, all of which require substantial time and funding. One innovative technology that can be put in place right away are EPA-registered surfaces that are proven to kill bacteria continuously, regardless of who is in the room. These biocidal surfaces dramatically reduce the amount of contamination in the patient environment, meaning less transmission of disease-causing pathogens, including MRSA and C. difficile - for everyone.
Technology will not be able to cure all problems having to do with healthcare inequality, but they can help make immediate changes while we work on the rest. Because these technologies result in better patient outcomes and don't require additional human processes, they can actually mean cost savings in addition to the life-saving protections. Which technologies do you use that help your facility achieve better healthcare equity? Add your thoughts to the comments below!