COVID-19 has not only exposed but exacerbated deep-rooted health inequities globally. Whether it’s the striking disparities in life expectancy across racial and socioeconomic lines, or the disproportionate impact COVID-19 itself has had on communities of color, the focus on advancing health equity through innovation is a leading priority across our MassChallenge HealthTech community of providers, government agencies, payers, pharmaceutical companies, startups, and other healthcare organizations.
Since 2018, MassChallenge HealthTech (MCHT) has partnered with the Massachusetts Health Policy Commission (HPC) to promote community-based providers’ access to digital health solutions that may address high-priority healthcare transformation policy areas. In 2020, as part of our Health Equity Initiative, MCHT and HPC built upon the partnership to develop an action-oriented 2021 event series on a variety of topics related to health equity.
To date, MassChallenge and HPC have hosted three webinars, including “Lessons from the Field: What Innovators Can Learn from Community Health Centers,” “Achieving Equity in Telehealth Access,” and “Meeting the Needs of Diverse Populations: Startup Lightning Talks.” These events are free and open to the public, and the recordings can be viewed here.
REFLECTIONS AND TAKEAWAYS
So far we’ve heard from a variety of experts, from medical professionals to startup founders. The conversations have encompassed a variety of topics, from why technology is developed, to how it is implemented and who it impacts. Here we break down a few key takeaways:
1) How We Build Technology is Just as Important as Why We Build It
We know that technology has tremendous potential to increase the accessibility and efficiency of healthcare. Whether it’s telemedicine, diagnostic devices, or new treatments, innovation plays a key role – but throughout our series, speakers made it clear that technology-forward solutions necessitate intentionality and empathy. Technology alone won’t completely solve issues in healthcare, but innovating through a patient-centric framework will help ensure alignment with more equitable outcomes.
In Achieving Equity in Telehealth Access, for example, David D’Arcangelo, Commissioner of Massachusetts Commission for the Blind, used telehealth as an example, saying “Having access to the information superhighway is a prerequisite for access to these telehealth resources.” Many patients may lack high-speed internet, for example, or private locations to take calls. English Language-only services present a common barrier, as do minutes restrictions for patients on subsidized phone plans. Still, telemedicine has proven to be a necessity in the pandemic and will likely continue to be more commonly used in the future. How can organizations build and adapt technologies like these to best serve all patients?
First, it requires the understanding that the people most qualified to provide insight on solutions are those directly affected by the problem. “The experts for the products that we’re talking about are the people who are patients, the people that have been in our communities,” said Dr. Michael Tang, Chief Behavioral Health Officer at The Dimock Center, during the series. Innovators must actively listen to traditionally underserved communities in order to develop products and services that truly meet their needs, recognizing also that this will likely benefit all patients.
In fact, many MassChallenge HealthTech startups are built by individuals directly affected by the issues they address. In Meeting the Needs of Diverse Populations, for example, Wolomi founder and CEO Layo George discussed her experience as a Black nurse and how that has allowed her to develop a product specifically tailored to the needs of pregnant women of color. Black women are about three times more likely to die of pregnancy-related causes than white women, often due to entirely preventable issues. Layo described how mothers, “feel they’re not being listened to, they feel neglected, and oftentimes when they’re given information, they’re given it way too late.” Wolomi instead places the mother at the center of their care, and offers a variety of features to create a community of people on similar journeys. The juxtaposition between Wolomi’s approach and that of traditional healthcare illustrates the importance of not just innovating for patients, but innovating with them to produce optimal outcomes.
2) Data is Key
As Dr. Anurag Gupta said in Achieving Equity in Telehealth Access, “If you don’t measure things, you can’t improve things.” This should be a guiding principle for any organization looking to advance health equity. As with any challenging issue, understanding the baseline is key. Looking internally and identifying gaps in your company’s understanding of its target patients is the first step, as well as setting up systems of measurement and secure ways to collect and track data. Doing so sets startups on a path towards not only more equitable impact, but a more accessible, complete product or service.
Marigold Health founder and CEO Shrenik Jain shared an example of the power of data during Meeting the Needs of Diverse Populations. He highlighted the fact that buprenorphine is a cost-effective outpatient treatment for opioid use disorder, and access to buprenorphine has drastically expanded over the past five years, with the number of providers offering the treatment increasing by 2-3X. On the surface, this is a tremendous step for treatment of opioid use disorder. However, according to Jain, more granular data reveals that white individuals are 35 times more likely to receive buprenorphine treatment than Black individuals.
This demonstrates the importance of an intersectional approach to understanding healthcare data. Marigold Health embodies this approach by providing holistic and personalized recovery support for substance use disorder. Their platform is built on proprietary AI that analyzes patient data and identifies social, medical, and behavioral needs. This allows for customized and proactive interventions for every patient, ultimately leading to better care and an increased likelihood of recovery.
3) Collaborate and Communicate
We’ve discussed the necessity of listening to patients and the importance of data in advancing health equity – but it is clear that startups can’t fix the healthcare system by themselves. The fight for health equity requires communication and collaboration across the many stakeholders of the healthcare industry, from startups and patients to providers and government. Panelists of Lessons from the Field: What Innovators Can Learn from Community Health Centers, for example, spoke extensively about the value of startups partnering with community health centers, which disproportionately serve racial and ethnic minorities, low-income patients, Medicaid recipients, and other underserved populations.
As Dr. Michael Tang, Chief Behavioral Health Officer at The Dimock Center, said to startups in the audience, “What do we need to provide better health? We need better communication and better data...That’s where your support as people who know technology and innovation is going to be incredibly helpful.”
Collaboration is essential, and in many ways that’s a core belief of MassChallenge HealthTech itself. The startups who spoke during Meeting the Needs of Diverse Populations (4Blind, Butterflly Health, Marigold Health, and Wolomi) each worked closely with one or more of our Champion organizations for months in shared pursuit of their health equity goals.
MassChallenge HealthTech facilitates these partnerships and continues to find ways to bring organizations together with startups to design and deploy creative solutions addressing critical needs in healthcare.
Stay tuned for more from MassChallenge HealthTech and our partners as part of our Health Equity Initiative! To stay up-to-date, sign up for our monthly newsletter here.