Surgeon or doctor using mobile device

How tech can help close the healthcare delivery gap

Image credit: Inna Dodor/Dreamstime

As technology becomes more pervasive and integrated into every aspect of our lives, one priority should be eliminating healthcare disparities that have been highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Health tech is revolutionising healthcare and has the potential to reduce healthcare costs, increase access, and improve outcomes. Cloud-based capabilities, data and remote monitoring can energise clinical care while improving patients’ quality of life and generate economic value.

Unfortunately, however, there’s wide variability across the UK in terms of access. Have you ever thought about how technology can improve healthcare for minorities, those of lower socio-economic status, disabled people and those with existing health conditions?

Sadly, in 2020 there are still racial inequalities for healthcare. For example, there are massive racial disparities in pregnancy-related deaths, with statistics showing overwhelmingly that black women are more likely to die during pregnancy than white women.

Discrimination is often to blame for differences in treatment and support offered by healthcare professionals, with Covid-19 placing racial health inequalities under a sharp spotlight. A mixture of racism, deprivation and social injustice results in both healthcare professionals and patients from black and Asian backgrounds being twice as likely to die of Covid-19 in the UK – healthcare providers must acknowledge that the way care is delivered may unconsciously disadvantage some ethnicity groups, socio-economic statuses or existing health conditions.

Research also found that black patients are more likely to wait longer for a primary doctor’s appointment, a shocking finding. Lanna Wisniewski, assistant professor of health policy and management at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in the US, commented: "Timeliness of care is really important. Delay in seeing a provider means that the patient spends more time experiencing the illness or injury. They may be anxious or in pain for longer. They may struggle for longer to go to work or take care of their family. Delay also gives the condition more time to worsen, which means that if a health system gives more timely care to one group over another, the health system itself may be contributing to health disparities."

According to reports, although there was an improvement in health across all classes during the first 35 years of the National Health Service, a correlation still exists between social class and infant mortality rates, life expectancy and inequalities in the use of medical services.

Poverty can be blamed, along with poor housing conditions, and notably a lack of resources in healthcare in poorer areas in comparison to wealthy areas – rural hospitals and community health centres are less likely to have the same resources and expertise as large and perhaps city hospitals, with less funding for advanced medical technologies.

Mental health charity Mind conducted research across 42 UK areas and found that spending on mental health varies considerably across England, with a two-fold difference in government funding between certain areas, suggesting the UK needs to focus on parts of the nation with high unmet clinical needs.

People with disabilities too face major hurdles accessing healthcare in the UK, with research showing disabled women are particularly disadvantaged. A BMJ report which assessed the reasons for unmet healthcare found that long waiting lists and distance or transport issues were primary reasons for individuals with disabilities not accessing the healthcare they need.

How can health tech help? While there are many complex factors contributing to these inequalities, among many others including stigma, discrimination, and environmental factors, it is clear that health needs to be primarily accessible, safe, and culturally responsive.

In order to provide appropriate healthcare for disadvantaged groups, health tech can provide a number of online healthcare services: NHS prescription delivery, which can be life-changing for those who are hindered by their disability and struggle to leave their house; booking in-person GP appointments online for ease of access; and online doctor’s appointments and video consultations when patients might not be able to make a physical appointment

Another measure is signposting to alternative health services when others may be full or there are long waiting lists to prevent a backlog. This can be beneficial for hard-to-reach communities including ethnic minorities, locations with a geographic disadvantage, and older and disabled individuals

The tremendous growth in the use of health tech provides many opportunities to work with communities to reduce health disparities – particularly mobile technologies, due to their extensive use within ethnic minority communities.

Globally, more people own a mobile phone than own a toothbrush – let’s take advantage of that and reach people who might usually suffer in silence.

Louise Kitchingham is PR and communications director at myGP.

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