Massive disparities continue to plague healthcare in the United States. Many Americans do not have access to quality care, leading to higher rates of diseases like diabetes, hypertension, cancer, and obesity. Health equity means ensuring that health resources and services are accessible and affordable for everyone, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, geography, ethnicity, or financial circumstances.
Health equity allows people to lead active and productive lives, reduces the healthcare burden on the government, and contributes to economic growth. By one estimate, healthcare improvements accounted for one-third of the economic growth of developed nations over the last century. Achieving health equity presents an urgent challenge that demands attention from all stakeholders.
However, actual medical care accounts for 20% or less of what affects population health. The remaining 80% comes from the social determinants of health, such as public safety, the availability of stable jobs, access to green spaces, cultural practices, and more. For example, people living near industrial zones tend to have lower life expectancies or are prone to certain diseases. Rural communities may lack easy access to preventive care and screenings. Language barriers may deter certain populations from finding accurate information. The costs are astronomical. Health inequity costs the nation $320 billion a year, a figure that could balloon to more than $1 trillion by 2040, according to Deloitte.
Several roadblocks hinder progress in achieving health equity, of which the perennial issues of funding and staffing are often in the spotlight. But there is another hurdle that is just as significant, and that is the lack of quality data on these social determinants. Data-driven insights are crucial in understanding health disparities. By comparing quality-of-care data with population, income, and ethnicity across the U.S., we can identify gaps and define appropriate next actions.
Digital technology has transformed many industries in recent years. However, healthcare is often left behind, with many healthcare organizations still struggling to collect important data. The Institute for Healthcare Improvement found that while 59% of health systems named health equity as a top priority in 2021, 38% of those health systems pointed to inconsistent data collection as a top barrier to achieving that goal. And only 25% of U.S. hospitals screen patients for the social determinants of health and other markers.
Much in the same way “food deserts” limit people’s ability to choose healthy eating options, the healthcare industry faces a “data desert” that has real-world repercussions. There is no readily available database on the disease burden by population segment. Doctors have no access to data about the social determinants of health, hampering their ability to tailor care to patients. With incomplete data, certain populations are overlooked during the development of new drugs. It’s not a stretch to say that your phone knows more about many of these key factors than your doctor.
The industry will never topple barriers to health equity without changing the way providers and payers approach health data. For example, many companies are not aggregating the data they already have to generate insights. Additionally, sharing information between payers and providers is inefficient, leading to physician and patient fatigue.
However, we can learn and build on efforts already underway to address this. Importantly, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), the largest payer in the country, whose services touch 170 million people, is rolling out a comprehensive 10-year initiative to understand the causes of disparities, improve accessibility to care, and better address the social determinants of health. The first priority is to expand the collection, reporting, and analysis of standardized data.
It’s not just large-scale initiatives that will help. Payers and providers can implement small changes that can do a lot of good. Technology can play a crucial role in advancing health equity by bridging the data gap. Telemedicine connects underprivileged populations with remote, real-time care. Smart devices and mobile health apps empower individuals and make interactions more seamless – from viewing test results to reminders to get vaccinated to sending surveys on care quality. Responsible AI can remove biases, improve diagnostics, and enhance clinical decisions. Aggregation and integration of business and patient data can help create a deeper understanding of patients. Digital and process automation can alert providers to non-compliance. Data analytics can unearth patterns from real-world data to better understand the root causes of health inequities and provide targeted interventions.
Attaining health equity means we must work collectively to break down barriers and ensure that every individual has access to the care they need. By stepping up efforts to collect and share data on the social determinants of health and embracing technology to bridge the gaps, we can create a healthier future for all Americans. It’s time to join hands and take meaningful steps toward a more inclusive and equitable healthcare system.
About Alok Mandal
Alok, the head of healthcare consulting for Virtusa, specializes in healthcare-focused enterprise architecture, digital process automation (DPA), data engineering, robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), and cloud-first strategy.