When we hear the phrase “digital health,” we might think about our Fitbit, the healthy eating app on our smartphone, or maybe a new way to email our doctor.
But Fitbits aren’t particularly useful if you’re homeless, and the nutrition app won’t mean much to someone who struggles to pay for groceries. Same for emailing your doctor if you don’t have a doctor or reliable internet access.
“There is a disconnect between the problems of those who need the most help and the tech solutions they are being offered,” said Veenu Aulakh, executive director of the Center for Care Innovations, an Oakland-based nonprofit that works to improve health care for underserved patients.
At the Petaluma Health Center, a network of community clinics in Sonoma County, Calif., staffers offered free, simplified “loaner” digital devices to patients after a hospital stay to help them avoid complications that could land them back in the hospital.
They first offered an Android tablet to allow for a video visit with a health professional, but patients were reluctant to take it, saying it was hard to hide and could be stolen, said Dr. Danielle Oryn, the network’s chief medical informatics officer.
Then they tried iPhones, in which everything was locked down except the ability to call 911 and a single button triggering the video visit. Those were more acceptable. Still, there were challenges. Would patients, some recuperating at homeless shelters, have access to electricity to charge their phones? Oryn said they had to learn by trial and error. She was surprised and pleased to see seniors accepting the technology. Every loaner iPhone was returned to the clinic.
Oryn’s advice to the captains of the digital health industry?
They should “not necessarily come in with too many assumptions. They should come with an open mind and a willingness to listen,” Oryn said. “Safety-net people are very excited to have these companies interested in them and to share their experiences.”