Health equity has become an organizational priority as data capabilities slowly mature, EY finds

Three-quarters of polled health equity executives expect their area of expertise to become a greater priority over the coming year, a new EY report has found. 

Ernst & Young’s second annual health equity outlook report reached 500 health equity leaders from provider, payer, life sciences, government and nonprofit and community organizations in January 2024. Though health equity efforts are maturing, data and analytics capabilities remain a major hurdle to scaling, the firm found.

Health equity strategy development is a high priority for a third of organizations, with a focus on healthcare access and quality and narrowing disparity gaps. That could include things like addressing language barriers, expanding insurance coverage, strengthening community partnerships and culturally tailoring services.

“Those are very concrete, tangible ways that you can overcome patient barriers to accessing care,” Susan Garfield, chief public health officer for EY Americas, told Fierce Healthcare.

Health equity work requires sophisticated data and analytics capabilities, the report said. Though organizations are increasingly shifting from collecting data to using them to inform their efforts, bigger entities with more resources tend to be more mature in these capabilities, per Garfield. Nevertheless, capturing, sharing and leveraging data to address health equity is an “ecosystem responsibility,” Garfield said. 

There was a 50% increase from last year’s report in respondents citing data, AI and technology as a priority. Most (88%) are utilizing numerical findings and adopting data analytics. Higher-maturity organizations are leveraging more sophisticated data to drive health equity advancements. While generative AI is slowly being integrated, ethical concerns have pushed it to a secondary focus, the report found.

Life sciences and payers have the most advanced data analytics capabilities, Garfield said. Yet the most frequently cited collaborator in the report, for all segments, was providers. Organizations also frequently collaborate with others in their own segment.

“Most organizations recognize that health equity isn’t something you can solve on your own and it’s critical to take this kind of ecosystem perspective,” Garfield said.

Community-based organizations (CBOs), too, are increasingly being leaned on for their proximity to patients even though their data and analytics capabilities are limited.

“CBOs are essential to moving the needle as it relates to health equity,” Kelly Hawk, EY principal of health transformation consulting, told Fierce Healthcare. 

Medicaid waivers, like those in New York, Massachusetts or North Carolina, are encouraging the creation of regional networks of CBOs to collect important population data and get reimbursed for it, Hawk noted.

Though many organizations identified health equity as a "want and need," top challenges cited in the report were competing priorities (41%), a lack of financial commitment (36%) and a lack of an articulated business case for health equity (28%).

Many organizations did acknowledge a clear ROI, however. The report found 65% of organizations reported health equity efforts having a positive return on their financial performance. And 83% reported improved health outcomes. 

“There’s just an enormous amount of waste in the system, an enormous amount of poor outcomes that are overrepresented in minority populations,” Garfield said.

Just under half of organizations have been able to quantify ROI or outcomes impact, saying leadership buy-in and community engagement and trust are their top success factors. Ninety-two percent said financial investment in health equity efforts at their organization will increase over the coming year.

“There is very broad recognition that the disparities that exist are driving increased costs into the system,” Hawk echoed. “If the downstream factors and variables were better managed, there would likely be less costs involved or a shift in how the spend is allocated so that the outcomes are improved.” 

The clearer the case for ROI, the more the industry can push health equity efforts forward, per Hawk. Regulators and shareholders for large public companies can also help drive and reinforce the agenda around health equity. 

“There is still a long road ahead,” Garfield said.