Leveraging innovations in health tech to mitigate health care disparities

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Close up of a stethoscope and digital tablet with virtual electronic medical record of patient on interface.Digital healthcare and network on modern virtual screen, DNA medical technology and futuristic concept.
image: @health tech | iStock

From desktops to laptops, smartphones to smartwatches, technology has come to play an increasingly central role in our lives, but what about health tech? And as the influence of technology has spread across industries, crucial sectors like education and healthcare have seen noticeable transformations

One example is the offering of online platforms in these sectors. Due to increased accessibility and connectivity, platforms such as e-learning and telemedicine, have become increasingly popular due to their convenience and effectiveness.

The colossal role tech plays in our lives was reinforced even further during the COVID-19 pandemic, enabling us to work remotely and hold virtual meetings, as well as underscoring the value of online learning. However, the pandemic also highlighted the divides that exist in our society – particularly in healthcare. Now, with tech being used ever more in healthcare, there is a strong hope that health tech developments could help create a more equitable system.

The current divide in healthcare

Health inequalities are a longstanding problem. Minority populations, such as lower socio-economic groups, disabled individuals, and those with certain health conditions, often bear the brunt. In practice, they often face reduced access to healthcare, a lower level of care received, and below-average health outcomes.

These disparities were particularly visible during the pandemic. Although ethnic differences in mortality declined as the pandemic progressed, the initial onset saw ethnic-minority communities facing higher infection and mortality rates compared to others. A variety of conditions, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease, both risk factors for COVID-19, show different prevalence rates depending on ethnicity and are more common within Black and South Asian groups than in White populations.

Lower socio-economic groups have also long faced difficulties accessing healthcare, whether due to a lack of funds or because lower-income communities often lack suitable facilities. The life expectancy gap in England provides a case in point. Comparing women from the least-deprived and the most-deprived areas of the country, one study reports almost an eight-year difference in life expectancy – a figure extended beyond nine years for men.

Similarly, disabled individuals and those with chronic illnesses often find it hard to get appropriate care. This could be because healthcare facilities do not meet their needs or there are issues managing certain health conditions, but the result is often the same: delayed diagnoses, inadequate care, poorer health outcomes and higher mortality rates.

These are issues with no single cause or solution. Instead, there are multiple reasons, including lack of healthcare coverage, cultural or language barriers, and even systemic bias within healthcare systems, all of which contribute to the disparities.

Exploring the potential of technology in healthcare improvement

The fusion of tech and health to create the healthtech sector has brought about multiple milestone changes in recent years. Take the invention of 3-D printed body parts in 2013 for instance, or the insertion of telemedicine into nearly all aspects of healthcare more recently, and it’s no surprise that 80% of healthcare providers are planning to increase investment in technology and digital solutions over the next five years.  These innovations range from enhancing patient care, diagnosis, and treatment, to upgrading the entire healthcare delivery system.

For example, electronic health records have simplified access to patient information, making it easier for healthcare professionals to manage care; remote consultations now enable people to receive medical advice at home; and wearable devices monitor activity levels and aid in the development of virtual wards, decreasing the number of in-patients.

Crucially, healthtech has helped to promote medical collaboration as well, allowing scientists to share data, work together remotely, and speed up medical advancements.

For some communities, this could signal a potential shift towards healthcare equality. Telemedicine and mobile apps are already increasing access to services, while remote consultations are giving underserved populations facetime with physicians, allowing them to receive medical advice that might otherwise be out of reach.

All of this suggests that, with the right funding and support, the research and development of health tech solutions can continue to drive us towards a more equitable healthcare system.

Fostering collaboration for change

This is where we believe Nexus is playing a crucial role. Our innovation hub at the University of Leeds, partners with health tech companies to fuel innovations in the healthcare sector. Through collaboration, innovation hubs like this provide a platform for these companies to share ideas, resources, and expertise. They aim to create a conducive environment that encourages problem-solving and the development of cutting-edge health technologies to improve patient quality of care and overall health outcomes. Many member start-ups and scale-ups that sit at Nexus, are already working to develop tools to reduce health inequalities. Here are a few examples:

  • Smart Crowding
    • Smart Crowding is a Norwegian company that is tackling overcrowding in hospitals with software for patient flow management and planning. Through Nexus, Smart Crowding has built strong connections in the UK, even while remaining based overseas.
  • Itecho Health
    • Itecho Health is improving the quality of life for many through a platform for digitally monitoring patients with chronic health conditions. With Nexus’ support the startup has grown rapidly, securing £2.2 million in funding from the National Institute of Health Research for their latest project developing digital technologies for prostate cancer patients.
  • Apollo Health Innovations
    • Apollo Health Innovations helps businesses develop new products, services, and technologies that address inequalities from the get-go, while Microneedle Solutions are on a mission to democratise vaccinations worldwide by developing vaccine patches for people in remote and resource-limited settings.
  • Pinpoint Data Science
    • Meanwhile, Pinpoint Data Science are developing novel insights into the two-week wait pathway for cancer.  This will allow for patient prioritisation and triage within this, and an additional ‘safety net’ for those most likely to miss their appointments. Finally, Hyivy addresses female health inequalities to improve the quality of care for pelvic health patients.

The future of healthtech

Healthtech has the potential to help level the healthcare playing field: mobile health applications could give people access to services irrespective of their location; affordable solutions for condition monitoring could cut costs; personalised interventions could help individuals identify developing conditions early.

Then there is the easy-to-access online information that will help people make better health decisions on a personal level, and the gathering of crucial data that will help policymakers make better decisions on a societal level.

But while healthtech is helping us move in the right direction, we must also acknowledge – and overcome – any resulting challenges, such as tech accessibility, potential algorithm biases, and data issues. That way, more equitable health outcomes for all could be possible.

Technology holds substantial promise in addressing and reducing healthcare disparities. As we’ve seen, continuous innovation and collaboration in healthtech can lead to transformative changes, resulting in better patient care, improved outcomes, and cost reductions.

Innovation hubs like Nexus play a pivotal role in fostering a collaborative environment that brings together tech companies, healthcare providers, researchers, clinicians, and academics. By pooling our expertise, we can create more effective and inclusive solutions. These collaborations not only drive knowledge sharing but also speed up the innovation process. And as we look to create a more equitable future, our collective efforts within the healthtech space are more crucial than ever.

This piece was written and provided by Nathan Berry who currently serves as the Head of Collaboration and HealthTech Lead at Nexus

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