Even as the application of sophisticated data technologies has skyrocketed in recent years, healthcare inequalities amongst varying populations (particularly those segmented by race, gender, or socioeconomic status) have remained constant or have even become more pronounced in the United States.
How is this possible, despite such significant public interest and pressure is focused on social justice and equity issues?
The healthcare system is large and complex, and it can be incredibly difficult to create significant changes. However, with the considerable abilities that data collection and application affords us, we can work to create real change and promote true health equity in our healthcare system. Harnessing the power of data to address this problem will take intentionality and strategic thinking – but with it, creating real change is more possible than ever before.
Data Collection Is Imperative for Maintaining Population-Wide Health Standards
Data can affect healthcare equity in a few different ways. First, data can change the effectiveness of healthcare by making it possible to understand and monitor health trends and care standards across entire populations. “Information health systems are essential in population health,” reports Dr. Kenneth Campbell, the Program Director of Tulane University’s online Master of Health Administration. “Building electronic public health dashboards where data could be visualized and intervention strategies could be developed, shared and implemented has the capacity to change the quality of health of all communities.”
The prolific amount of data available to public health decision-makers can inform effective practice decisions better than ever before. Its aggregation and community-wide application make new perspectives available. This can make it easier to better allocate resources, flag areas or demographics that are not receiving adequate care, and predict needs that will surface or shift in the future. Data can improve community- or geography-level healthcare delivery standards. As data implementation becomes both more affordable and expected, we should see an increased implementation rate across the healthcare landscape.
Data Collection Creates More Equal Benefits for Various Stakeholders
The impact of better data collection affects not just widespread public health outcomes but individual-level healthcare delivery. The application of data collection in healthcare has made it possible to know much more about each patient, regardless of demographic. Thanks to superior data aggregation and medical records made possible by today’s Electronic Health Record (EHR) systems, in theory, medical care providers can provide an enhanced quality of care to every patient that walks through their doors.
The types of information consolidated in EHRs can include medical care and procedure history, family medical history information, diagnostic and test results, current and past medications, allergies, and more. Having this information available at a moment’s notice to medical care providers can vastly improve care efficiency and effectiveness. It can also mitigate mistakes, erroneous care decisions, and harmful prescriptions. The advent of EHRs has created the potential for huge care quality improvements for all patients and beneficiaries of the healthcare system.
However, though this potential exists and has benefitted countless patients over the past decade, deficiencies in the system and histories of prejudice and discrimination will require active intervention to equalize. The ways advancements have been implemented have limited the communities to which they have been made available in the past and have thus perpetuated long-standing disparities between populations.
The healthcare system at large needs to acknowledge the systemic discrepancies that disadvantage some communities and demographics over others and work to undo them. This will take time, but can ultimately result in every demographic equally benefitting from the incredible power of EHRs (and other ways of utilizing superior patient data techniques) to create better outcomes.
Data Collection Can Reveal Healthcare System Disparities
In addition to enabling higher quality healthcare provision at both the individual and community levels, data collection systems can also be extremely useful for analyzing the healthcare disparity problem itself. “Data collection is essential to being able to assess equity and outcomes in healthcare at a specific institution in the US system – for example, are black and white patients with a similar clinical profile on admission provided the same quality of care and experience the same outcomes?” asks Dr. Susan Hassig, professor within the Epidemiology Department at Tulane University’s School of Public Health.
Effectively solving a problem requires first understanding it. Data analysis can provide deep insights that better inform the nature and scale of healthcare inequities so that they can be more effectively combatted.
Using data to research and understand realities perpetuated by the system allows decision-makers to implement stronger initiatives that result in real outcomes. The inequities that affect healthcare provision across the United States are complex and often systemic. Truly understanding them is a vital necessity for dispelling them.
Data Collection Can Better Facilitate Patient Feedback
Finally, utilizing strong data collection techniques and processes allow patients to share their own experiences with healthcare decision-makers. When leaders in healthcare make decisions without understanding and considering the lived experiences of those they hope to help, they are in grave danger of misunderstanding the actual pain points their beneficiaries feel. This means they are much more likely to implement solutions that ultimately prove ineffective.
The robust data collection processes available to healthcare systems today make it more possible than ever before to realistically include patient feedback and insights in the decision-making process.
Patient engagement can not only provide a snapshot of current realities and system inefficiencies but can provide an important metric for ongoing evaluation. Patient feedback should be utilized during the implementation process as measures are taken to change healthcare equity.
This allows decision-makers to more quickly and more accurately assess whether their solutions are creating a meaningful impact. Feedback can yield important insights, flag solutions or attempts that may need to be changed or scrapped for better ideas, and reveal early successes that can be utilized and scaled.
Data is already changing the way healthcare decision-makers can effectively instigate positive changes within even large systems and processes. It is providing valuable support in the health equity conversation and must remain a key element to ensure that the healthcare system makes meaningful progress in this area.