Digital capital as a social determinant of health - 3 ways to empower patients - MedCity News

Social determinants of health reflect the conditions in the environment in which an individual is born, lives, works, plays and worships. These conditions have a direct impact on the state of health of the individual, functioning and quality of life. Given the recent pandemic, the need to meet people where they are and facilitate proactive healthcare has increased. The aim is to reduce health care costs, address health problems at an early stage and most importantly make access to health care easier, affordable and fair.

“We are only just beginning to think about the digital future of healthcare and we need to think about interactivity more than interoperability if we want to make data exchange more dynamic and inclusive,” says Mickey Tripathi, National Coordinator for Health Information Technology at the Department of US Health and Human Services.

Technological innovations such as telehealth, virtual second opinion, health tracking, patient portals and remote monitoring devices have been a boon to the healthcare industry given their ease of use, affordability and proactive nature. But at the same time, these innovations have created further disparities in the health care system, as 15-24% of Americans lack the skill set needed to use the technology or lack access to broadband services. These problems persist in rural and urban areas where incomes are below $20,000 per year. Digital access should be seen as a social determinant of health to make healthcare more accessible and affordable.

Integrating digital capital and an inclusive strategy

Healthcare systems must weave a digital capital strategy to support patients in using technology, helping them understand their healthcare information and gain effective access to care. Additionally, reducing medical jargon and providing interpretive resources to ensure there are no language barriers will go a long way in helping patients take their health into their own hands.

Increasing digital literacy

Understanding what devices patients use and how they currently access their health information is an important first step toward closing these gaps. The next step is to create a plan to transition patients to digital health platforms so they can access healthcare more quickly. Low-income people often cannot make their health appointments on time due to transportation issues, concerns about immigration status, language barriers, and lack of awareness of the importance of addressing their health issues. A digital health platform would significantly solve these problems.

Expand partnerships with community organizations

Health systems should also expand their partnerships with community organizations to further facilitate digital literacy skills training and improve connectivity. Libraries not only offer the Internet, but also provide a spectrum of learning services from basic digital literacy to skills needed for specific devices and applications. Some communities have used health workers and patient navigators to screen patients and refer those in need to basic digital literacy training and help find ways to improve connectivity

Current initiatives to improve broadband access in America include:

  • Affordable Connection Program, a federal program that provides between $30 and $75 per month to households within certain income ranges. This program also provides a one-time discount for the purchase of a computer or tablet.
  • Lifeline Programa federal program that gives people in eligible households a monthly discount on phone and Internet service
  • Internet for alla federal government initiative that provides funding—including $65 million set aside in the bipartisan Infrastructure Act—to states, communities, and ISPs to improve high-speed Internet planning, infrastructure, and adoption.

To expand access, equity, and most importantly make healthcare more proactive than reactive, digital access must be seen as a vital part of the social determinants of health equation.

Photo credit: wigglestick, Getty Images

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