How Can Technology Contribute to Equity in Health Care?

By Devin Partida, Editor-in-Chief,
Twitter: @rehackmagazine

Technology is central to modern health care, including making comprehensive medical treatment equally available and accessible to everyone. Equity is a significant concern today, especially as data highlights persisting disparities among different demographics.

Even where there is equal access to health care, circumstances cause uneven quality of treatment from one person to another. In many ways, technology is both the problem and the solution. Health care leaders can use it to improve equity by solving a few key challenges.

Improving Medical AI Transparency

AI and machine learning in health care can be a hot-button topic. When the technology was new, many believed it was the solution to resolving persisting underlying biases against people of color and other minority groups. However, this did not turn out to be the case. Algorithmic bias has become a major issue in medical AI models, with algorithms returning results that reflect societal prejudices learned from training data.

However, many experts still believe AI technology is the key to addressing equity disparities in health care. Algorithms trained to be truly bias-free could help doctors provide better care to all patients and help alleviate medical mistrust among key demographics. Professor S. Craig Watkins of MIT commented on AI and racism in a 2022 report, noting, “Systemic change requires a collaborative model and different expertise … We are trying to maximize influence and potential on the computational side, but we won’t get there with computation alone.”

Watkins went on to explain that greater access to resources and education on AI, as well as real-world policy changes, are crucial to addressing algorithmic bias. Building more transparent AI models and training them with more inclusive data could help create a more equitable health care system like many originally envisioned.

Expanding Access to Technology

One of the most widespread issues in health care equity is lack of accessibility to brick-and-mortar facilities and the technology to communicate with providers. This became even more problematic when the COVID-19 pandemic forced many businesses, employers and doctors to shift to primarily remote, virtual operations.

Lack of access to technology is detrimental to equity in digital-first health care. It even impacts efforts to improve medical technology that would address equity disparities.

Some may be surprised to learn that an estimated 30 million Americans do not have access to broadband internet. This is much more common in rural areas where approximately one-quarter of residents are not connected. People that are older, less educated, low income and of color are more likely to lack broadband access. These individuals can easily get left behind, in care and as data, when services are primarily digital.

Everyone is welcome at health care centers, but not everyone has the tools necessary to fully utilize the services available or even pay for them. For example, those without internet access or a computer may not be able to learn how to set up a health savings account or pay digital medical bills. This worsens economic hurdles that deter many from seeking medical treatment. Actively expanding access to technology and resources for researching, receiving and paying for treatment could resolve equity disparities.

Diversifying Health Care Research

Knowledge is the key to overcoming any challenge. If doctors, nurses and medical researchers do not have comprehensive information about treating all patients, they won’t be able to provide equal care. Health care may be equally available to everyone today, but equitable treatment remains out of reach for many because providers lack the data to offer the best care possible. All too often, this leads to patients in minority demographics receiving subpar medical treatment, which builds distrust and worsens inequity even further.

According to 2020 studies, seven out of 10 Black Americans report being treated unfairly by the health care system. This can manifest in multiple ways, such as lack of access to high-quality medical insurance or being denied certain treatment options. Data plays a key role in this problem, along with underlying societal factors.

Increasing the diversity of medical research allows health care providers to gain a more thorough, accurate understanding of everyone’s needs. This data could also be used to properly train nonbiased medical AI models.

More diverse health care research could also identify geographic areas that lack access to high-quality care facilities or the technology to reach providers. Using tech to collect data and conduct research will reveal where inequity is most prevalent and help inform solutions.

Equal Health Care for Everyone

Technology can build a truly equal, equitable health care system. However, it remains on the precipice due to lack of access and inclusive data holding back possible solutions. The right strategies can expand fair access to treatment, improve knowledge of care, and provide doctors with the tools and data to create an unbiased system for all patients.