5 Ways Digital Health Technology Can Support Equity in Canada’s Hospitals
We have a healthcare equity challenge in Canada – a challenge that’s been brought to light during the pandemic.
We know that for people living in lower income areas, life expectancy is consistently lower. Infant mortality is higher among individuals who are materially and socially disadvantaged. And in areas with a high concentration of Indigenous people, mental illness hospitalization rates are two to three times greater and the prevalence of arthritis, asthma, diabetes and obesity is elevated.
The list goes on.
Although Canada is considered one of the healthiest countries in the world, and work is underway to transform the healthcare system, major inequities still exist. Some argue they’re even deepening.
Although digital health technology can’t solve the inequities that exist in Canada, this article looks at five ways technology can be used to improve health equity within hospitals and the healthcare system.
Before we begin, let’s take a look at what we mean by healthcare equity.
What is Healthcare Equity
Healthcare equity is defined as a state where “individuals have the fair opportunity to reach their fullest health potential.” Common barriers to health equity include social and environmental factors, like income, race, gender and social status.
Equity is quite different from equality. Whereas equality is about providing the same care, services and opportunities for everyone, equity is about recognizing that each individual has different circumstances and providing them with specific care, services and opportunities needed to reach their best health outcomes.
To achieve healthcare equity, we can’t assume that everyone is the same, or that everyone will benefit from the same care in the same way. Instead, we need to focus on finding ways to achieve individualized healthcare outcomes, which may not be the same across all demographics or even within groups of people.
This is where technology can help.
How Digital Health Technology Can Advance Equity in Canadian Hospitals
There are many benefits that come from achieving, or even working towards, healthcare equity. In addition to improving individuals’ health outcomes, advancements in health equity can promote wellness and demonstrate cost-savings over time.
Although the solution is multifaceted and complex, digital healthcare technology – especially technology available to patients and clinicians at the hospital bedside – can play a supportive role.
1. By providing the same starting place for patients
When patients are admitted to hospital, they can easily become isolated from the outside world and reliant on nurses and clinicians for information and support. While some patients have the option of turning to their mobile device to keep them connected, others simply don’t.
Despite its growing popularity, “bring your own device” (BYOD) programs can actually intensify inequities and further the “digital divide” in hospitals. BYOD assumes that everyone has access to the same technology, and creates an unequal starting place.
On the other hand, by providing digital bedside technology, patients can access their health information and stay connected, without the need for personal devices. Keeping patients in touch with loved ones and equipping them with health information allows them to be actively involved in their care and increases their sense of empowerment, enabling them to reach their best health outcomes.
Healthcare equity is about providing all patients with access to what they need throughout their healthcare journeys. Digital health technology can ensure all patients have access to healthcare information, when and where they need it most.
2. By offering a more individualized experience for patients
Patients’ needs are as individual as their injuries and illnesses. But under our current healthcare system, a lot of these needs are met with a broad brushstroke.
Patients who fall between the cracks are also patients who need more individualized care, particularly vulnerable demographics. This individualized care requires improved communication between providers and patients so those needs are fully voiced, understood and met.
Digital bedside technology can help address this challenge. It can be adapted to meet the needs of individuals – whether that means providing accessibility functions, real-time language translations, or other modifications – and it can virtually connect patients to their healthcare providers.
Together, this provides a better experience for patients and one that’s individualized to their needs.
3. By helping clinicians uncover and address inequities
When a patient arrives in the hospital, it’s largely up to clinicians to ask the right questions to determine the plan of care they need. Unfortunately, health equity items may not be identified during assessments and engagements with patients. Just as we know it’s not enough to ask someone if they’re “male or female”, there are other questions that need to be thoughtfully reconsidered.
Digital health technology can support clinicians in uncovering inequities by providing them with impartial, real-time information and clear understanding as they discover the individualized needs of the patient.
Too many times, patients are discharged “home”, but they have no home to go to. Single mothers with newborns are told to come back for a follow-up appointment, but have no method of transportation. Or patients are told to go on specific diets, yet they’re experiencing food insecurity. A few simple questions prompted by digital health systems at the bedside could help clinicians uncover and respond appropriately to these inequities.
While technology can’t replace the clinician’s experience, skillset and intuition, it can disrupt “normal” ways of delivering care by helping them discover inequities and seek out individualized solutions for each patient.
4. By solving problems in new and creative ways
The COVID-19 pandemic offered a powerful example of how legacy models of care are ineffective in dealing with gaps in equity. The healthcare system was required to find new and creative ways to support their communities.
For instance, with the push to achieve a nearly 100% vaccination rate, healthcare workers quickly realized they couldn’t expect all eligible people to go to hospitals or clinics to get their vaccines. Not everyone had access to these locations. As a result, mobile vaccination units were rapidly created and deployed to areas where data revealed they were needed most.
By extending care beyond the hospital walls, this showed that we can solve health challenges with the help of digital technologies. In return, this helps bridge the equity gap.
Digital healthcare technology grants healthcare workers immediate access and insight into the needs of populations who may not otherwise be able to access hospitals without assistance, or who may have unique healthcare needs, such as specialized support workers or assistive devices.
With the help of technology, healthcare can be reimagined to meet the needs of all patients, not just the ones who fit a standard patient profile.
5. By bringing members of marginalized communities to the table
Inequity in the healthcare system is usually subtle. However, it’s seen systemwide and can have devastating impacts on patients and their health outcomes. Often, this is a result of a lack of understanding, information and communication about patient needs.
For instance, patients with language barriers may not understand the extent of their health, treatment plans and overall prognosis. Similarly, they may not understand informed consent or medical terminology.
For individuals who are transgender, a clinician may not know how to manage their care in a way that’s sensitive to their individual needs. In some cases, individuals may avoid care altogether to avoid a negative experience.
A powerful way to address this is by bringing marginalized communities to the table and asking how care can be adapted or individualized to meet their differing needs. Technology development and implementation provides a great opportunity to do so. When planning, designing or deploying technology, holding focus groups can be incredibly useful – uncovering inequities and finding solutions to overcome them together.
Providing these solutions in real-time at the bedside ensures clinicians have access to this information and can align the care plan with the patient’s needs.
Bridging the equity gap
The digital transformation in Canada’s hospitals is underway, but when it comes to equity, we still have a lot of work to do. By utilizing digital technology to inform, educate and bridge the equity gap, hospitals can support a forward-thinking evolution of the Canadian healthcare system, for both clinicians and patients.