How digital initiatives can help improve health of safety-net populations

It's important to understand the needs of safety-net populations to achieve the potential digital health holds in improving their health, according to a report from the California Health Care Foundation.

"[For] developers to succeed, they must offer products and programs that fit the needs of safety-net consumers in ways that are useful, accessible and comfortable for them," the report states.

These people often lack stable housing, transportation, and their work schedules make it difficult to see a doctor during normal business hours. Many are not fluent in English, and some are socially isolated. However, most do have cellphones, which can be the key to reaching them, a report from The Commonwealth Fund found.

Apps such as text4baby and programs such as the University of New Mexico's rural telemedicine initiative Project ECHO can prove beneficial to helping these populations, the report states.

It also points to examples such as a program at Montefiore Medical Center, which found that customized text messaging bolstered appointment adherence by 40 percent and medication adherence by 12 percent. In addition, electronic messaging along with implementation of an electronic health record system helped Kaiser Permanente reduce health disparities for black patients managing diabetes and heart disease.

Among the report's advice on how to leverage digital tools:

  • Meet people where they are. "Do not assume, for example, that people universally have access to Wi-Fi, or that their cell phone number remains the same throughout the year," says Blue Ridge Labs' Hannah Calhoon.
  • Address the social determinants of health.
  • Consider the cost of data service.
  • Speak their language. For example, a prescription in English that directs a patient to take a medication "once" can be misinterpreted, since "once" means 11 in Spanish.

To learn more:
- read the report (.pdf)

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