Digital health startups join HHS accelerator to tackle COVID health inequities

Fifteen digital health startups will join a national accelerator program to address health inequities exacerbated by COVID-19.

The PandemicX Accelerator program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and co-led by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT, seeks to leverage data and digital tools to tackle health disparities.

The digital health startups chosen for next year's four-month growth program, which includes curriculum, mentorship, and partnership opportunities, will create action plans to scale their business and address challenges surfaced by the pandemic, as well as to minimize the impact of future health threats on those inequities.

“PandemicX will help give us interoperable tools that identify health inequities and facilitate interventions that prevent such inequities from further turning into healthcare disparities,” said Micky Tripathi, Ph.D., national coordinator for health IT, in a statement.

The fifteen startups chosen for the 2022 cohort are: Carium, CBOH, Culture Care Collective, EatWell Meal Kits, Eupnoos Ltd, Ferrum Health, HealthOpX, HeyRenee, Juli, ManagingLife, OMNY Health, Opeeka, Patientory Inc., UnMute and Welfie.

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PandemicX is part of MassChallenge HealthTech, a digital health innovation hub that will facilitate the accelerator.

MassChallenge has laid out five key areas for the startups to address, including health equity by design, national public health solutions, behavioral and mental health and violence prevention, community resilience, and socioeconomic outcome indicators.

Digital health tools have helped facilitate access to care for many patients during the pandemic across racial groups.

An Anthem review of 2020 telehealth use released in July showed that Hispanic patients used telehealth for behavioral health visits significantly more than their white counterparts, while Asian members used virtual behavioral health resources at similar rates to white patients.

RELATED: Anthem study: Telehealth helped address pandemic health disparities, but gaps remain

But gaps in that access remain, especially for people living in rural areas.

In addition, those same tools revealed preexisting disparities that were worsened by the pandemic, from mental health issues to domestic abuse prevalence.

The same Anthem study revealed that Black patients had 7% fewer mental health visits than white members, despite research that indicates Black communities by in large faced higher levels of behavioral health challenges during the pandemic.

“This study is a key reminder that technology alone won’t be sufficient to bridge this gap and the bridge may not be the same for all people. However, it may be the connector needed by certain communities or geographic areas. Clearly, outcomes during the pandemic would have been much worse without telehealth," said Shantanu Agrawal, M.D., Anthem's chief health officer, in a statement about the study.

The HHS accelerator aims to bridge those gaps for more communities and across more focus areas.

"I am excited for the PandemicX Accelerator cohort to work with us to collectively address health equity barriers and other disparities exacerbated by COVID-19 by using data and innovation,” said Admiral Rachel Levine, M.D., assistant secretary for health. “We are at our best when all segments of society work together; we must work collaboratively to achieve the best solutions.