Today a patient's ZIP code can say a lot about their life expectancy and health outcomes. In the U.S. especially, healthcare costs are high, leaving some without access to care. This has left innovators to look to digital as a way to help in scaling care and lowering costs. Big tech especially is jumping into the healthcare game.
During a panel at the Vatican Conference on health this morning, Dr. David Feinberg, vice president and head of Google Health, and Dr. Mark McClellan, director of the Robert J. Margolis Center for Health Policy, discussed how tech could help expand access to health and assist clinicians in providing better care.
"I think actually your ZIP code is the most important determinant of your health. So, what's happening in your community is as important as your genetic code. And so, access to food, understanding where housing is, understanding medical information in a way that makes sense to you, [are] super important."
Tech could be one way to help tackle issues related to social determinants of health and find out more about a patient's circumstances.
"There is increased attention, driven by digital capabilities, to be able to reach people where they are in their homes, as we saw happen during the pandemic, and to connect them to a broader range of resources to help improve their health," McClellan said.
"Not just scheduling a visit with a doctor, but figuring out if they're feeling isolated and mood issues or behavioral health needs could be met, figuring out if there are other social service needs – food insecurity, housing insecurity – and helping to connect that."
But policy will need to change in order for these technologies to reach all patients. Many patients do not have access to broadband and reliable Internet, which throws up a potential barrier to digital services.
"Unfortunately, as you say, we don't have as much data connectivity as we'd like to support that. And I think one of the most important changes in healthcare that can help make that happen is to set up our payments or other policies in a way that reinforce caring for the individual where they are, at home, and not just paying for services that are often downstream – and not really going to get out those core issues that are embodied in your ZIP code," McClellan said.
Feinberg said that health tech should be used in conjunction with the clinicians, to help support their work. That means partnerships between big tech and healthcare.
"After being here for two years, I am positive that our technology can save lives. It's mind-blowing," Feinberg said. "I'm also equally positive that, if we don't get two things right, the technology will never make it to the light of day.
"And those two things are – people have to trust us, right? We have to establish trust, and the best way for us to get that trust is through partnerships.
"So, this isn't Google taking care of you. This is Google on an information page saying, in the U.K., this is what the NHS says, or in the U.S., this is what Mayo Clinic says, or your Ascension doctor saying to you, this tool is allowing me to take better care of you, or in our partnership with Mayo on a radiotherapy for cancer patients.
"We need to provide tools to those frontline people, so they all have capes on."