Can Digital Healthcare Help Fix Inequalities?

digital health inequality

The Parkland Center for Clinical Innovation in Dallas is using digital technology to address the preterm birth crisis among women in underserved communities.

For new mothers, preterm births can mean thousands of dollars in hospital bills and potentially life-threatening conditions for the newborn. Preterm delivery is quite common in the United States, affecting more than one in ten births. However, demographic, socioeconomic, and geographic factors contribute to a much higher risk of preterm birth for women from low-income environments, specifically women of color. 

To address this disparity, the Parkland Center for Clinical Innovation (PCCI) in Dallas is using digital technology like machine learning and text message reminders to help prevent preterm delivery. This initiative exemplifies the power of digital tools to connect with diverse patient groups and expand the reach of potentially life-saving treatments. 

Demographics in Healthcare

Many risk factors for preterm birth — such as drug and alcohol dependence or a history of depression — are associated with the stresses of poverty, racial marginalization, and a lack of access to regular healthcare, all of which disproportionately affect women of color. And the statistics support this claim — one study found that 14.79 percent of black mothers and 10.34 percent of Hispanic mothers experienced preterm births, while the rate was significantly lower for white mothers at 8.64 percent. 

Medical innovators like those at PCCI are taking crucial steps to holistically address the demographic disparity in maternal healthcare. The Preterm Birth Prevention Program is pioneering patient-focused prenatal checkups that account for critical environmental and social factors — an important piece of the puzzle that doctors tend to overlook.

To reach at-risk patients, PCCI uses data-driven risk prediction, provider notification, tailored patient education, and workflow redesign. Risk prediction includes geographic information (on the block-level instead of the zipcode-level), demographics, age, and other contributing factors. The program also includes risk-stratified text alerts to improve patients’ access to prenatal care.

So far, PCCI’s program has proved to be a major success. PCCI Doctor Steve Miff reports that the model is “three to four times more accurate than clinical standards for identifying pregnant women at risk for preterm birth,” and it has “reduced early preterm delivery by 27 percent, and reduced first-year baby costs by 54 percent.” 

Patient-Based Success

The prenatal care innovations at PCCI are just one example of how digital technology is transforming healthcare. Digital tools are being used with increasing frequency to reach out to patients, keep track of risk factors, and remind patients what actions need to be taken. With today’s ever-increasing number of on-demand services — from entertainment to transportation to food delivery — digital healthcare advocates affirm that interventions are most effective when doctors meet their patients where they are.

Digital outreach is a major component of PCCI’s Preterm Birth Prevention Program, and it has been central to the program’s success. For instance, PCCI uses text message interventions to increase prenatal visit attendance and improve birth outcomes. The success of PCCI’s initiative has shown that digital outreach can be a winning strategy for expanding patient access across platforms such as email, text, and social media.

Diverse patient populations call for increasingly diverse outreach strategies. A recent Pew Research Center study shows that black and Latinx Americans are more likely to use Instagram and Twitter than white Americans, while white Americans are more likely to use Pinterest and LinkedIn. To successfully access desired patient groups — especially those in underserved communities — medical marketers and healthcare providers should take note from PCCI on the benefits of customized, demographically-informed digital outreach.

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