New coalition aims to use digital health to improve equity

The Digital Health for Equitable Health Alliance includes historically black colleges, pharmaceutical companies and advocates for patient care.

A new coalition has been formed to use digital health to promote health equity.

The Digital Health for Equitable Health Alliance says it plans to improve access to healthcare through digital health, telehealth, wearable devices, artificial intelligence and machine learning. The coalition set out its agenda in a news release Tuesday.

Health advocates have pushed telehealth and digital health advances as key elements in ensuring those in underserved populations have access to healthcare.

Members of the group include historically black colleges, patient and health advocacy groups and pharmaceutical companies.

Tanisha Hill is the president of the alliance and the U.S. senior medical director, respiratory and digital health medical lead at Teva Pharmaceuticals. In a news release announcing the effort, Hill called the coalition “a change catalyst that transforms health for Americans in every corner of our nation.”

“We can do that by collaborating across different sectors and systems, and by leveraging resources to amplify impact and mobilize resources for underserved communities," Hill said.

"Equity isn't just a buzzword, it's a critical movement that will save lives and ensure that, regardless of income, ethnicity or gender, all Americans can access digital technologies that can remove barriers to healthcare management and critical health services,” Hill said.

The coalition’s membership includes the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network; Howard University College of Medicine; the African American Wellness Project; the Black Women's Health Imperative; the Allergy and Asthma Network; Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science; Meharry Medical College; Otsuka Pharmaceutical; Patientory Foundation; Health Aims for Little Ones (HALO) and for Families; and Teva Pharmaceuticals.

While many health leaders herald the promise of digital health in expanding access, some have also pointed to some disparities in access.

A recent federal study pointed out Black, Latino and Asian patients have utilized video telehealth services less regularly than white patients. A separate report produced by Teva found roughly one in three doctors (36%) said most of their patients lacked the computer or wi-fi to easily access telehealth.

On a more encouraging note, Medicare beneficiaries in all income groups, including some in the most disadvantaged communities, gained access to treatment through telemedicine, according to a study published earlier this month in Health Affairs.

Michael Crawford, associate dean for strategy, outreach and innovation at Howard University College of Medicine, serves as vice president of the coalition. He noted the horrific impact of COVID-19 but also noted it has spurred innovation in healthcare.

Crawford said the pandemic “amplified the need for equitable approaches and technologies to address longstanding health challenges impacting vulnerable communities. That is why DHEH's work is so vital.”

Healthcare advocacy groups are pressing Congress for reforms to ensure continued access to telehealth.

The COVID-19 public health emergency includes waivers allowing broader use of telemedicine, and a federal spending bill will allow those waivers to continue for five months after the expiration of the emergency declaration. Advocacy groups are pushing for a permanent remedy, arguing telehealth offers chances to aid underserved communities in urban and rural areas.

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