The COVID-19 pandemic has been nothing short of one of the most challenging experiences in our nation’s history. COVID-19 has impacted nearly every person, industry, and facet of life, with healthcare living at the forefront. And while COVID-19 is ravaging emergency departments, canceling all elective procedures, and causing uncertainty in care, it is also creating a surge in digital health solutions for patients and healthcare consumers.
What is digital health?
In short, digital health provides healthcare consumers with remote access to healthcare services that can be delivered regardless of location. It has many names and components, including mobile health, health information technology, remote monitoring, telehealth, telemedicine, and digital health coaching. COVID-19 has certainly accelerated the need for digital health offerings, but its benefits are not limited to a pandemic response. Digital health removes barriers such as transportation, time, appointment access, and most categories of social determinants. It can be faster, more convenient, safer, and more effective options for patients. The benefits are numerous and the options are endless.
Yet, while digital health has helped overcome many of the barriers presented by in-person care, it also has come with its own set of determinants that may impede care access. The whole concept of digital health centers around access to technology, including phone service, the internet, and a mechanism to access both of these modalities.
However, internet and phone services currently are unavailable to or not adopted by millions of Americans. In fact, nearly 14.5 million people living in rural areas and one-third of those living in tribal communities do not even have access to consistent internet. Furthermore, 100 million Americans who do have access to the internet have not adopted the service. With digital health services still being relatively new, the industry as a whole lacks consistency and collaboration among deployment. This can lead to access issues and challenges for health equity.
The Digital Health Equity Framework
The Digital Health Equity Framework (DHEF) was created to consider health equity factors in the delivery of digital health services. The DHEF serves as a blueprint to achieve digital health equity and outlines several components that are considered “digital health determinants.” Digital health determinants impact a patient’s likelihood to receive a quality of care that is person-centered, safe, timely, effective, and efficient. The digital health determinants include:
- Access to digital resources
- Use of digital resources for health-seeking or health avoidance
- Digital health literacy
- Beliefs about the potential for health to be helpful or harmful
- Values and cultural norms/preferences for use of digital resources
- Integration of digital resources into community and health infrastructure
What does digital health equity look like?
The DHEF identifies guidance points as “goals” for achieving digital health equity. The framework takes into consideration other ecological facets beyond the digital scope that impact digital health equity. This includes health policy, funding, governance, and the patient and provider relationship.
For Pack Health, we advance these goals as a part of the digital health ecosystem. We are working towards that through the following objectives:
- Improving Food Access: Our Food as Medicine program focuses on decreasing food insecurity by integrating our patient engagement platform with meal delivery services.
- Increasing Access to Digital Health Services: Instead of forcing patients to fit a program mold, Pack Health molds to fit the patient’s needs. If technology is a barrier for them, we prioritize finding alternative methods to get them the care they need. For example, if a member doesn’t have a smartphone or access to email, we’ll mail them the information they need or read it to them over the phone.
- Addressing Social Determinants of Health: We foster partnerships with other organizations that help our members overcome barriers caused by social determinants of health. Our suite of partnerships includes non-emergency medical transport, meal delivery, social care networks, and more.
- Actionable Insight from Data: Pack Health actively collects data on the digital health experience of our members and uses that data to improve the lives of existing and future members. For most, healthcare is a local experience. By drilling data down to the zip code level, we can use the information to deploy local support resources. This data also provides insight to further enhance digital health offerings in general.
The future is bright for digital health.
As we’ve shared in previous articles, Pack Health wasn’t built to respond to a pandemic. Now that we are here, we are prepared and positioned to support our members’ health from the convenience and comfort of their homes. The rapid incorporation of digital health into our healthcare infrastructure came out of necessity. We’re thrilled to see its place solidified within healthcare and excited to be a part of the future.
Brantley Fry is the Vice President of Health Equity and Community Engagement at Pack Health.