You close your first telehealth session. The COVID-19 pandemic kept you from seeing your doctor in person and you were worried about videoconferencing. But now you feel relieved — you didn’t have to deal with street-clogging traffic, scour the parking lot for a space, read a stale magazine in the waiting room, and have your actual time with the doctor compressed. Instead, you were comfortable in your own home, spent only the necessary amount of time to see the doctor, and had ample time to ask questions.
As telemedicine has gone from a convenience to a matter of safety, the increase in use during the pandemic ranges from 500% to 4,000%, depending on the study. Perhaps what we didn’t foresee is its potential for long-term benefits to health care and health equity. And this was the topic of a Micron panel discussion hosted by the Diversity, Equality & Inclusion (DEI) group on how COVID-19 is affecting our lives.
I was excited to moderate this panel and learned so many interesting things from our panelists — UCLA Associate Professor of Medicine, Dr. Fola May, and HealthTap Chief Strategy Officer Sean Mehra — about the health inequities that exist now, possible underlying causes, challenges specific to COVID-19, and short-term solutions that may have long-term implications for health equity in the future.
Not everyone in the U.S. has equal access to good health
Like me, you are probably not surprised to learn that not all Americans have the same opportunity to the highest level of health. And now, the COVID-19 pandemic is further exposing obstacles to health equity. For example, people in their 50s and older are more likely to become infected, males have worse outcomes than females, and people with other conditions (such as heart disease or diabetes) are also more vulnerable to the novel coronavirus. African American and Latino populations are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, with African Americans seven times more likely to die from it than whites in some areas.
What causes differences in access?
Reasons for the disparity aren’t clear, although differences in health, access to care and information, socioeconomic status, cultural distrust of the medical profession, and the essential nature of people’s work likely put these populations at higher risk.
According to Dr. May, baseline data about race, ethnicity, age and gender hasn’t necessarily been collected systematically, although that is changing. Still, data about other social determinants of health — levels of education and income, types of job, number of people in the household, and many others — aren’t often collected, but these factors do affect health. Medical professionals can better provide individual care when they have more robust information about their patients.
COVID-19 fixes could advance health equity
Mehra spoke about how COVID-19 is changing views on working from home and e-learning. With remote access removing geographic constraints, people may find jobs or attend universities that were previously unavailable to them. Higher levels of income and education can promote health equity.
Health care advances are promising as well. Sheltering in place orders are forcing companies to innovate, and now we are seeing home delivery of prescriptions, food and much more. We may soon see more tests being done at home via Bluetooth sensors and wearables that send data to the doctors. Imagine your doctor calling you because your blood sugar has been high for the last four days!
Telemedicine could broaden your choice of medical professionals — you could access a doctor who speaks your language, understands your culture, listens to your concerns. It could also make it easier to get second opinions.
Of course, we’re not there yet. More data needs to be collected, lack of representation must be addressed in clinical trials, and the list goes on. But COVID-19 has forced us to acknowledge underlying inequities in health and health care, changed people’s minds on what is possible, and catalyzed advances that were underway.
Listening to our well-informed and thoughtful speakers, I couldn’t help but feel proud that protecting the health and safety of our global workforce has been a top priority for Micron. Given the company’s global presence, Micron was proactive in implementing measures — such as working from home, supplying face masks and thermometers, and providing a range of resources for physical and mental health — that may influence how we do business in the future.
Watch the DEI panel replay to hear the full and vibrant discussion of health equity, as well as the thoughtful Q&A forum.