AHRQ’s Digital Healthcare Research Program Moves Digital Healthcare Transformation Forward

By Chris Dymek, Ed.D, Director of AHRQ’s Digital Healthcare Research Program
Twitter: @AHRQNews

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the delivery of healthcare has rapidly evolved. The rapid uptake of digital technologies, especially telehealth, suggests the appetite for innovation will persist. More than three-quarters (76 percent) of patients who used telehealth services during the pandemic said they are likely to continue using them in the future, a recent Harris Poll found.

AHRQ’s Division of Digital Healthcare Research (DHR) has played a central role in the emerging era of digital healthcare transformation. The program funds research that yields actionable findings about which technologies carry the highest potential to improve patient care.

Our work is guided by a central commitment: to help build a research base that can inform digital system design to improve healthcare quality, safety, and equity without putting excessive burdens on physicians and other members of the care team.

We’re excited to highlight the progress that our investments have made on behalf of the American public in the past year. In 2020, DHR supported 103 research grants and eight contracts; we awarded funding in 26 States and the District of Columbia to more than 60 institutions. Our new report, Improving Healthcare Through AHRQ’s Digital Healthcare Research Program, summarizes the impact that AHRQ-funded research is having in these key areas:

  • Strengthening Patient Engagement To Improve Care and Shared Decision Making.
  • Supporting Clinicians to Improve Decision Making and Patients’ Care.
  • Improving the Delivery of Health Services at the Health Systems Level.

DHR’s annual report also includes eight specific impact stories that, while highlighting advances within these areas, also provide compelling descriptions of completed research, including research that aligns with the Biden-Harris Administration’s goal of advancing our understanding of social determinants of health and increasing health equity.

For example, as Dr. Andrea Wallace, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, managed patients’ chronic illnesses, she became increasingly aware that health providers working in emergency departments (EDs) did not fully understand patients’ social needs or how to best connect them to essential non-clinical resources. To address this gap, Dr. Wallace and community partners developed a low-cost, 10-item electronic social needs scanner that was integrated into the hospital’s ED workflow. Today, patients who need assistance, such as transportation, or food and housing assistance, are directed to the United Way of Utah, which is staffed 24/7 by trained specialists.

Our report also features highlights from emerging research that addresses AHRQ priority areas, such as increasing access to care for people living in rural areas. To improve management of hypertension in children and teens living in rural Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Dakota, Drs. Elyse Kharbanda and Catherine Benziger, Health Partners Institute, Bloomington, Minnesota, and the Essentia Institute of Rural Health, Duluth, Minnesota, are disseminating a clinical decision support tool to help clinicians identify, treat, and manage elevated blood pressure and hypertension for children and teens aged six to 17 years old. Tools like these are especially important in rural and medically underserved areas where adolescent obesity levels are high and access to pediatric specialty care is limited.

Additional stories in our report show how AHRQ-funded researchers explored other ways that technologies can improve care, such as supporting self-management of healthcare in older adults, identifying kidney disease through the use of artificial intelligence, and using patient-reported outcomes for shared decision-making among patients with osteoarthritis.

A prominent section of our report is devoted to COVID-19 and the ubiquitous expansions in telehealth. This Research Spotlight explores AHRQ’s ongoing research investments in evaluating telehealth and technologies that enable the collection of patient-generated health data into electronic health records.

We’re excited to share the findings and real-world applications of AHRQ’s investments in our DHR program. We look forward to sharing our advances with the field and taking important new steps that increase our understanding of digital technologies that lead to better patient care. And we welcome, of course, your suggestions on how we can build on our momentum. Please contact us at DigitalHealthcareResearch@ahrq.hhs.gov.

This article was originally published on AHRQ Views Blog and is republished here with permission.