The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the use of digital health tools and telehealth to expand access to care at a time when patients were encouraged to stay home and prevent the spread of the virus.
"Digital health technologies such as telehealth certainly weren’t invented during COVID-19, but their potential to deliver care was most certainly tested and proven," said Jay Schnitzer, M.D., chief medical and technology officer at Mitre Corporation, a national research and development center.
But the pandemic also laid bare the health inequities faced by many populations and amplified the risks of further exacerbating the "digital divide," Schnitzer said.
The U.S. is now at an inflection point as there is an opportunity to take lessons from the pandemic to better prepare for the next global health emergency while also leveling the playing field around access, technology and care for all populations.
Mitre and its health advisory committee developed a draft national strategy for digital health as a "call to action" that identifies a set of priorities and provides a framework to ensure equitable access to health technologies.
A strategy developed in collaboration with private industry and policymakers is critical to ensure that digital technologies are not just "layered" on top of the current system, which is costly, inequitable for many and often yields poor health outcomes, according to Mitre's health advisory committee.
"The decisions that will be made in the coming months and years could set us on course to finally eliminate the tragic health disparities that were exacerbated by COVID-19," Schnitzer and the other authors wrote in the Mitre white paper outlining the strategy.
If policymakers and industry stakeholders let the opportunity pass, there is the risk of worsening disparities in health by creating solutions that are only available to the "privileged few," he said.
"The biggest risk is that we fail to reap the benefits that could come to the American people that would result from having this kind of strategy and pulling it all together," Schnitzer told Fierce Healthcare. "We have been hearing promises about the benefits of IT in healthcare for years now. And, quite honestly, the observed benefits have fallen short of what was expected and far short of the promises. And the reason for that has been a lack of strategy."
Mitre operates federally funded R&D centers on behalf of U.S. government sponsors, and the organization formed a health advisory committee to engage senior-level executives to identify innovative solutions for national health issues.
In the white paper, Mitre highlighted six strategic goals to guide a national strategy on digital health:
- Access, affordability and utilization of universal broadband for all Americans
- A sustainable health workforce that is prepared to use new technologies to deliver person-centered, integrated, quality care
- Digital technologies that empower individuals to manage their health and well-being safely and securely
- Data exchange architectures, application interfaces and standards that put data, information and education into the hands of those who need it, when they need it, reliably and securely
- A digital health ecosystem that delivers timely access to information to inform public health decision-making and action
- Integrated governance designed for the challenges of a digital health ecosystem
The white paper also outlines recommended actions to work toward meeting these six goals and proposed time frames to achieve them, with some objectives taking up to a year and others requiring several years of work.
Equitable access to broadband technology, the first stated goal, is foundational to the entire digital health strategy, Schnitzer said.
The Biden and former Trump administrations and Congress have taken steps to improve technology infrastructure throughout the country. "We're suggesting that while this is happening, we need to ensure the right kind of connectivity is available for healthcare, across the board, not just for patients but for the entire ecosystem, particularly in underserved populations," he said.
Mitre's white paper proposes the U.S. establish the infrastructure to provide broadband access for all by 2025, along with increasing the affordability of both access to broadband and the tools needed to use the internet.
The draft strategy is designed to be a "working document" to spark dialogue and prompt feedback from the industry, Schnitzer said.
"The hard work is going to be bringing the entire community together, not just all the various departments, offices and agencies within the federal government, but we also want to take this to the private sector, manufacturers and healthcare delivery systems," he said.
As the end of the COVID-19 pandemic is on the horizon, the healthcare industry needs to seize the opportunity to chart a path forward, he said.
"COVID taught us that these technologies can really make a difference. Now is the time to up our game and do something we haven’t done over the last 10 years and could do if we put our minds to it," he said.