Health and Consumer Advocates Discuss Promise of Health Information Technology, Express Concern about Unequal Access to Emerging Resources
OAKLAND, Calif. – Communities of color could see significant improvements in their health through strategic use of emerging technologies in health care, according to a new report, Equity in the Digital Age: How Health Information Technology Can Reduce Disparities. The report was released today by health and consumer advocacy organizations at a White House Summit on Achieving eHealth Equity hosted by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, Office of Minority Health, and ZeroDivide.
Over the last four years, there has been an effort to dramatically improve the nation’s health care system through technological advancements. Beginning with the 2009 federal stimulus package and continuing with the landmark 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), the federal government has placed a tremendous emphasis on utilizing new technologies to improve efficiency and care in our health care system. The report by the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network (CPEHN), the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum (APIAHF), Consumers Union, and the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), offers policy recommendations for how advancements can best improve health in all communities and highlights the importance of improving access to new technologies in underserved areas to avoid exacerbating existing disparities.
“We have a great opportunity to improve quality of care, enhance patient participation and understanding, and reduce health disparities nationwide through the use of HIT,” said Ellen Wu, Executive Director of CPEHN. “As we embrace a comprehensive strategy to bring our health care system into the Digital Age, we must acknowledge that technology gaps exist for communities of color, immigrants, and people who do not speak English well. If we are not careful, we risk widening the gulf between the haves and have-nots in our health care system.”
According to the report, one area where HIT holds the potential for dramatic improvement is in data collection and analysis, where enhanced demographic information could help pinpoint disparities and lead to a more culturally and linguistically appropriate workforce and provision of services.
“Gathering data on race/ethnicity and language needs at enrollment, combined with a robust system of electronic health records, has the potential to change the health care experience in our communities,” said Kathy Ko Chin, President & CEO of APIAHF. “For example, detailed demographic information on Asian American and Pacific Islander patients and their language needs can help hospitals determine staffing needs such as the number of interpreters and what languages they speak and make translated materials available much more easily.”
The report cautions that while electronic portals for enrollment in public programs like Medicaid should improve program participation, it is important to construct these portals in a way that avoids creating additional barriers for some populations.
“Technologies must account for the needs of those most vulnerable to enrollment challenges and barriers, including mixed status families,” said Jennifer Ng’andu, Director of Health and Civil Rights Policy Projects from NCLR. “With two laws and significant resources devoted to bringing more of health care online, we have a major opportunity to narrow insurance gaps, simply by reshaping the technology in a manner that recognizes that one size does not fit all in a country where the American family is increasingly diverse.”
The report also discusses the need for security to prevent the misuse of health data. It references a set of principles developed by a cross section of California consumer, patient, and civil rights organizations in 2010 to maximize the benefits of health information exchange while assuring the privacy and security of electronic records.
“We must be careful that new technologies preserve the privacy and security of patients’ health information and avoid any misuse of data collected,” said Mark Savage, Senior Attorney for Consumers Union, the policy arm of Consumer Reports. “Communities of color, people who use languages other than English, and immigrants comprise at least 30 percent of our nation’s population. We need to make sure that the critical benefits of HIT reach all consumers and patients and that these systems are designed to garner their trust and meet their diverse needs.”
This report comes at a time when HIT is a key issue in the national health care discussion. With the ACA and other legislation, the federal government has emphasized the importance using technology to improve health outcomes.
The Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum (APIAHF) influences policy, mobilizes communities, and strengthens programs and organizations to improve the health of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders.
The California Pan-Ethnic Health Network (CPEHN) works to eliminate health disparities by advocating for public policies and sufficient resources to address the health needs of communities of color.
Consumers Union the advocacy division of Consumer Reports, works for health reform, food and product safety, financial reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.
The National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the largest national Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization in the United States, works to improve opportunities for Hispanic Americans.