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Increasing connectivity to address health disparities requires more than expanding broadband access

From left, Veneeth Iyengar, Executive Director of Broadband Connectivity and Development for the State of Louisiana, moderates a panel discussion on health disparities with Dianne Munevar, Senior Director of Business Enterprises and innovation at the University of Chicago’s NORC; Kevin B. Mahoney, CEO of the University of Pennsylvania Health System; and Dr. Michael Hochman, CEO of Healthcare in Action Medical Group.

During a panel Wednesday at MedCity INVEST in Chicago, experts discussed the key elements of improving health equity.

Among these, pThe anelists spoke about the need to involve whole communities, not just individual patients, and how better internet connectivity could help solve social determinants of health. The conversation focused, in part, on expanding infrastructure and Internet access in less populated areas. This was seen as a basis, but not a panacea, for targeting inequalities in care.

I think we can do a lot to bridge the digital divide once we get broadband,” said Kevin B. Mahoney, CEO of the University of Pennsylvania Health System.

Certainly, significant investments are being made to achieve this, and the emphasis is on expanding broadband as soon as possible.

To recap: $65 billion is going to be spent to bridge the digital divide in the United States, said panel moderator Veneeth Iyengar, who is the executive director of broadband and connectivity development for the state of Louisiana. In this role, he oversees an investment of between $1.8 billion and $2 billion to improve Internet connectivity; it’s money that needs to be spent over the next five years.

“So we’re not talking about a 20-year effort but a five-year effort to significantly close the digital divide in Louisiana,” Iyengar pointed out.

Now, about 1.6 million of the 4.6 million people living in the state do not have internet access, he said. Those without access do not have devices they can use to get online or broadband access.

In an increasingly connected world, not having a mobile device or internet access at home can make it difficult to meet basic needs. Addressing the social determinants of health, like if someone lacks transportation, can be difficult without that connection, said Dianne Munevar, senior director of business enterprise and innovation at NORC at the University of Chicago. .

Most people can’t just hail a cab. Instead, they could use Uber or Lyft, which has a healthcare branch — and in order to access this transport, you must have internet access, Munevar said.

But expanding broadband alone won’t solve everything, panelists said.

“Broadband is hugely important but not enough if we really care about health equity,” said Dr. Michael Hochman, a primary care physician who cares for the homeless as CEO of Healthcare. in Action Medical Group, based in Long Beach, California.

Where giving everyone the latest smartphone might be expensive and unsustainable, panelists discussed the need for affordable and accessible mobile devices that people could use to connect to services they can only access online.

But the panel didn’t completely rule out offline solutions. For example, Iyengar mentioned that it is important to be familiar with the anchors of a community, such as the non-medical facilities where people frequent or congregate. In some cases, for example, library rooms are used for telehealth, he noted.

Also, a person who does not have a doctor nearby can easily access a pharmacy, which can provide some basic health services. Pharmacies have been a boon during the pandemic as hundreds of millions of people have been vaccinated against Covid-19.

I think there’s a tremendous opportunity to innovate and use that touchpoint…to connect with patients,” Hochman said.

Photo: Walter Lim, MedCity News