Black History Month: Can digital tech help remedy health disparities for black people?

Healthcare IT News takes this month to celebrate the contributions from black digital health tech leaders, while also reflecting on why black patients are more likely than white patients to use health tech tools.
By Sara Mageit
05:30 AM

First acknowledged in the UK in 1987, Black History Month has always been somewhat celebrated and recognised as a core part of British history. However, this year has forced the world to see the reality of black history and racism like never before. This change has been propelled forward by a series of catalytic global events such as the Black Lives Matter movement, the Windrush generation, the seismic global call for action since the death of George Floyd in May 2020, and of course the number of black people dying disproportionately in the pandemic.

In the digital health space, this has led to concerns about ethnic minority data representation, more specifically the problematic issue of "race blind" data. In June, it was highlighted that the data protection impact assessment (DPIA) run by Palantir on the NHS COVID-19 data store would not be broken down by ethnicity, despite BAME people disproportionately affected by the virus. In fact, a study from the Lancet on digital health has claimed that there is no such thing as race in healthcare algorithms, which further raises the question around systematic discrimination in healthcare products and apps.

Can health tech remedy the disparities?

On the other hand, the accessibility of digital health technologies can also begin to bridge the gap between black patients and health care providers.

Building better clinical relationships with patients has always been an important factor in the process of receiving quality care. False assumptions and stereotypes are just a few of the issues that contribute to disparities in life expectancy, disease morbidity and increased mortality for black individuals. Consequently, many black people may avoid primary health care and therefore do not benefit from the preventive care services offered.

A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center showed that black patients are more likely than white patients to use telehealth because of the pandemic. When patients were asked whether they, "used the internet or email to connect with doctors or other medical professionals as a result of the coronavirus outbreak." About 17% of respondents said that they had done so, with significantly higher unadjusted odds among Black people, Latino people and other people of colour, compared with white people.

Increased accessibility to digital health technologies, such as telehealth, disease monitoring, measuring and data visualisation, including websites and social media platforms, that offer immediate access to medical and health information may offer a solution to helping both the patient and the doctor.

Most recently, HIMSS hosted a health equity week, inviting leaders to discuss the social determinants of health and how technology is shortening the distance between communities across the globe. In a webinar discussing how to close the digital divide experienced by populations, Ahmed El Saeed, thematic lead in Health United Nations Technoloy Innovation Labs Programme, said: "Engaging with the local service providers, getting their feedback on what really are the needs there because you really want to customise the solution to the actual needs.

"Many solutions come in with options that may not even be needed to that local context. Contextualisation is something that is quite critical and important to ensure access and to also get the providers to use these solutions. Capturing information in real-time has gained an additional level of importance in this pandemic. In many ways, digital applications can give a very good alarm time to a decision-maker."

Dr. Christopher Gibbons, CEO of The Greystone Group and assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins, told MobiHealthNews: "Digital is an amazing opportunity, but if we don’t get it right we will … enhance disparities and make them worse,” Gibbons said.

“We will probably make them worse faster than before because data is moving so quickly. If some populations get them and some don’t then we are going to be expanding disparities that are already there. There’s just no other way to look at it; some populations will benefit while others don’t.”

Celebrating black digital health leaders

As part of recognising black history, heritage and culture, it is also important to celebrate the excellent contributions made by black people who are disrupting the digital healthcare industry in the UK and Europe. Amongst which is, multi-award-winning, Dr Funke Abimbola MBE, CEO of The Austen Bronte Consultancy; Olamide Dada, founder of Melanin Medics, recognised as one of the top 10 black students in the UK; Berlin-based Jesaja Brinkmann, co-founder and co-CEO of stomach and intestinal health company, Cara Care; and Ivan Beckley, co-founder and CEO of remote care company, Suvera Health – to name a few.

In a Healthcare IT News blog, Dr Shera Chok, co-founder of the Shuri Network, discusses how digital leaders can take action to recognise the achievements and contributions of black people in the UK.

Call to action

A number of organisations have taken action to improve inclusion and awareness around diversity. The BME Leadership Network has been set up by the NHS, and seeks to improve understanding of equality, diversity and inclusion; publish the benefits to help deliver better care; improve and sustain the number of BME leaders working in the NHS, and profile the diverse range of BME leaders delivering solutions across the health and care system.

The Harvard Business Review has published an article on how organisations can support the mental health of black employees and the ten commitments companies must make to advance racial justice.

We hope that the celebration and recognition of black history extends beyond one month of the year and as always, we invite you to take action to improve the status quo both professionally and personally. Healthcare IT News has participated in a number of diversity and inclusion health care tech discussions and has picked up on a number of pertinent practical recommendations here.

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