By Ann Kim, Communications Editor
Following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, underlying health disparities around the world were suddenly laid bare, revealing weak healthcare systems and inequalities in many countries. Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) — the virus which causes COVID-19 — is highly contagious and poses a greater threat for those who are older or have pre-existing medical conditions such as high blood pressure, heart problems, or diabetes.
Statistics have shown clear disparities in the spread and severity of the virus based on factors like income inequality or housing segregation. Socioeconomic differences exacerbate such disparities and often result in unequal access or treatment, leading to widely divergent health outcomes between populations.
Furthermore, statistical analysis highlights significant longitudinal differences by race and ethnicity. But as Joseph West notes in his article “Advancing Innovation To Eliminate Health Disparities,” “While such articles contribute to the richness of the discourse and our understanding of the perpetual momentum of discriminatory practices, geographic segregation, and in many instances outright apathy, they often fail to point us towards better solutions.” So, what can be done to address this issue? Luckily, there have been some innovations that have helped improve access to healthcare.
1. mHealth Technology
Founded in the late 20th century, mobile health technology (or mHealth) has been found to remedy some of the inequalities in traditional healthcare systems through the development of models that use mobile and wireless devices such as Bluetooth enabled patient monitoring devices, tablets, and cloud-based software applications. By providing impersonal, unbiased medical care, this use of wireless technology can help reduce healthcare disparities amongst underserved populations. In addition, mHealth advances communication between healthcare workers and the greater community, allowing healthcare workers to use digital devices during care visits for screening or health education presentations. mHealth is also being used effectively in low- and middle-income countries, allowing analysts and practitioners to quickly and reliably stratify risks, access outcomes, and calculate costs of treatments.
2. Immersive Rehabilitation
Rehabilitation is often disregarded by patients, as it adds to the cost to their hospital fees. However, the development of immersive rehabilitation, or rehabilitation using virtual reality, has not only assuaged these problems but also expanded the types of exercises available to patients. According to Time, immersive rehabilitation “creates more opportunities to harness the brain’s plasticity and repair neural pathways; increases the amount of data caregivers can use to measure progress and adapt programs; and improves the monotonous, frustrating experience of rehab.” This innovation makes the experience of rehabilitation more pleasant and affordable for many patients, thus increasing the access that disadvantaged patients have to this often crucial treatment.
3. MIT diagnostic test
When treating viruses that spread quickly like Ebola, time is essential. Typical diagnostic tests, however, require long waits before a result can be concluded, preventing healthcare workers from determining whether the patient needs immediate treatment and isolation. Thankfully, researchers at MIT invented a simple paper strip test — similar to a pregnancy test — which can diagnose Ebola and other viral hemorrhagic fevers such as yellow fever and dengue fever within just ten minutes. With this new device, healthcare workers can more quickly assess the degree of risk and prevent widespread diseases. This testing method can be particularly crucial in more impoverished countries where people are at higher risk for illnesses such as dengue fever or yellow fever.
4. Detecting fake drugs using SMS
In the developing world, especially in west Africa, counterfeit drugs are a serious problem. According to the World Trade Organization, phony malaria drugs account for 100,000 African deaths each year. However, these problems can be easily solved with a decidedly low-tech solution, which is offered by mPedigree, a Ghanaian tech company. When a patient goes to a pharmacist and buys a drug, they can scratch off a panel to reveal a 10-digit code, which they can then send through an SMS message to mPedigree. Then, within just a few seconds, they can receive a confirmation of the authenticity of the drug.