Confronting disparities in access to healthcare for underserved populations in 2021

The global coronavirus pandemic is only the latest in decades of healthcare devastation for BIPOC communities: more illness, less care, more death. Many illnesses disproportionately affect certain populations due to disparities in healthcare access, but the pandemic helped shine a light on racism as a public health issue that needs to be broadly addressed. In 2021 and beyond, our government and health systems will need to make major shifts to address health inequality among ethnic groups, minorities and low-income populations.

In the two decades since the Institute of Medicine’s groundbreaking report, Unequal Treatment confirmed that differences in the quality of health care services can be linked with patients’ racial and ethnic backgrounds, annual studies by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reveal little has changed.  The latest National Healthcare Quality and Disparities Report showed that BIPOC patients received worse care than Whites for about 40 percent of quality measures, and uninsured adults across racial/ethnic groups are still at least twice as likely as their White peers to go without a doctor visit.

We can do better

When we look at patients who have a strong care routine, the common and critical thread is personal connection to their healthcare professionals; that bond and understanding reflects at the individual level and trust in the healthcare system overall. The isolation of Covid-19 lockdowns, as well as lingering reminders of some of the darker corners of American history, including the 40-year Tuskegee experiments on Black males, have exposed glaring gaps in our ability to relate to each other in meaningful ways.

Patients’ ability to receive optimal care is directly impacted by the level of trust, respect and access they feel and experience with their HCPs. We must continue to encourage and welcome into the healthcare ecosystem physicians and workers who can speak patients’ languages (both literally and figuratively) and look like the people they serve. Active recruitment of all genders of BIPOC, LGBTQ and disabled persons to the healthcare industry will help reduce patient fear and improve confidence in quality of care. As a result, a grassroots energy toward personal connections within healthcare will become a different — and yet predominant — kind of currency in our health systems going forward.

The Point of Care is evolving but has left behind many patient populations 

Healthcare now offers more choices than ever, and this has enabled it to become more personal and inadvertently more isolating. We must address the challenges of closing the digital divide to deliver equitable care to the underserved. Point of Care (POC) can be in your living room, your car, your computer monitor and your smartphone screen, but it is meaningless to the patient who lacks the technology and connectivity to access it. Even beyond the provider offices, access to accurate health and wellness information from HCPs or other patients/patient communities continues to expand in a multitude of ways and at an accelerating rate. Patients and HCPs can decide how they connect — whether that’s by means of a traditional face-to-face consultation, a patient portal, or a telemedicine visit – but vulnerable families may have limited or no access to internet service or compatible devices. Non-English-speaking families face additional barriers, including difficulty accessing instructions to virtual care and limited interpreter services within the healthcare system.

In the meantime, community-based care – including nonprofit organizations, pharmacy minute-clinics, urban urgent-care facilities, and the mobile RV health clinics plying the back roads of rural America — will play a more important role in making personal connections in 2021 than ever before. Despite some limitations in the context of treating ever-increasing chronic diseases, each of these entities is helping to increase healthcare accessibility and improve outcomes among communities disenfranchised from traditional healthcare. Even if government policymakers step up involvement, underserved communities are depending on NGOs and healthcare institutions to accelerate plans and develop new approaches to provide education, prevention, treatment and continuation of care.

The Point of Care space is moving beyond the four walls of HCP offices, and with it, content providers will need to find the right mix of delivering messages that are timely, relevant to the platform in which they are received, and germane to the demographic and health status of the patient. POC offers an opportunity to prepare for a visit with your healthcare professional and launch a meaningful conversation between the patient, caregiver and/or physician. Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, POC has provided educational, nonpromotional information from government sources, public health experts and advocacy groups to prevent and curb the spread of the virus, along with information from pharmaceutical leaders to educate about vaccines and make sure chronic conditions are not overlooked. This is expected to improve even more in 2021 and beyond.

Healthcare needs to learn from BIPOC voices, expand its inclusivity

In order to accelerate change and bring about equality of care for all disenfranchised groups, we must constantly expose those in the healthcare sector to new voices and perspectives from those who are tirelessly advocating for equity and justice in healthcare and ensure these experts and advocates are active participants in course-correcting the system.

Black voices in healthcare need more attention, and social media can be very effective in asserting their right to be heard. For example, in an effort to illuminate new points of view and take a stand against injustice, industry leaders of significant media and health organizations turned over their social platforms on July 22, 2020 to organizations and thought leaders on healthcare in the Black community. The initiative was a bold step to demonstrate the urgency to eliminate racial discrimination in healthcare and create forums to educate the public. In 2021, we challenge others in the healthcare industry to use social media and other thought leadership platforms to creatively inspire acceptance and change.

We all have an ethical responsibility to end disparities in healthcare and ensure BIPOC voices are magnified to educate the wider public and healthcare community at large. At the very least, we must ensure that everyone equally can receive the healthcare they need.  Particularly at Point of Care, we have the means and resources to directly inform, educate and offer service to those who have been marginalized across multiple demographic intersections of race, ethnicity and income. Quality care and an educational, empathetic patient experience for all is possible if we all work together for it.

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