Emerging tech as a solution to healthcare inequity in the US

By Maya Avrasin, Group Director, Engagement Strategy, FCB Health New York

The US is facing significant healthcare issues, including a shortage of healthcare professionals and inadequate representation of diverse populations in clinical trials. Additionally, more than 80% of US counties are categorized as "healthcare deserts," with residents living at least one hour away from medical facilities. The lack of diversity in clinical trials has led to unequal care and treatment, a problem that pharmaceutical companies must address urgently.

However, emerging technologies such as augmented reality (AR), smart diagnostic virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI) are proving to be solutions to these healthcare problems. At SXSW 2023, several sessions showed real-world evidence that supported how these technologies can address healthcare inequities in the US.

In one session, “Chatbots say AI could transform healthcare,” one of the panelists, Shan Jegatheeswaran, the Global Head of Digital Solutions for Johnson & Johnson, compared the mobile device revolution to the adoption of emerging technologies in healthcare. The principles of personalization, simplicity in access and trust that led to the ubiquity of mobile devices are applicable to the adoption of emerging technologies in healthcare.

Personalization is an essential principle that emerging technologies can offer in healthcare. ChatGPT, an AI chatbot, was a popular subject at many SXSW panels. In the "Mind the Machines: Technology and Mental Health" session, the panel discussed the potential of AI to help the 53 million Americans suffering from behavioral conditions. With a shortage of therapists, tele-mental health platforms that allow for virtual therapy sessions with remote patient monitoring systems are on the rise.

But AI is at least five to ten years away from replacing a human in therapy sessions. Instead, the panel outlined a list of current use cases for AI, including how it can aid therapists by monitoring patient behavior patterns and identifying suicide risk cases. It can also train therapists on different patient case scenarios and provide structured therapy for patients who are not ready to see a therapist yet.

Simplicity in access is another principle that emerging technologies can offer in healthcare. OnMed is a virtual primary care provider (PCP) that provides telehealth stations equipped with smart diagnostic devices such as stethoscopes, scales and eye and ear scanners. OnMed is partnering with local governments to offer free healthcare to patients in rural areas with limited healthcare coverage. Some potential upgrades could include the use of “digital humans” as part of the intake flow instead of the current nurse assistant. There is also the potential to expand the current suite of diagnostic tools to include Feelix, made by Sonavi Labs, which is a smart stethoscope that can give accurate diagnosis of respiratory conditions in seconds. 

On the clinical trial front, CareAccess is a mobile clinic equipped with nurses or NAs that can be dispatched into desert areas to reach clinical trial participants. With the addition of AR glasses as part of the nurse’s tools, they can tap into additional technology like Accuvein, which highlights the patient’s veins on their skin and makes the needle jab effortless and accurate, enabling anyone to deliver infusions more quickly.

Now, let’s move on to the trust factor. This principle was a little harder to identify at SXSW, but that has to do with the problem we’re trying to solve. It’s challenging to establish trust in communities who have historically been marginalized, ignored, and in some cases, experimented upon.

But AR and VR can simulate clinical trial experiences for patients, providing them with a better understanding of the trial's procedures, thus reducing anxiety. VR can also simulate virtual environments to accommodate patients' needs, such as those who require wheelchair accessibility. AI can also assist in the recruitment of diverse populations by identifying relevant patients and conducting outreach.

Emerging technologies have matured enough to be applied to help address healthcare inequities in the US. Point of care has shifted from the doctor’s office to being offered anywhere a patient lives. IPG Health sponsored a session at SXSW, “Clinical Trials: Innovating for Inclusion,” which pinpointed many problems in recruiting people of color for clinical trials, including that pharma companies keep going back to the same sites of care that they have used in the past because they’ve had previous success. Except those sites of care are usually far away from cities and towns that are more populated with people of color. Now, let’s see what we can do as healthcare marketers to continue to address the health inequity problem in clinical trials.