How technology can fight Covid-19 in marginalized communities

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MedCity News

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought to light the blatant differences that exist among marginalized populations in terms of the ability to receive adequate health care and achieve positive health outcomes.

While Covid-19 affected everyone, it injured people of color and people in rural areas disproportionately more often.

The technology is able to address some of these concerns that have emerged while addressing the systematic problems and other factors that contribute to these challenges. Technology already exists in many forms that can reduce the impact of Covid-19 in marginalized communities, but it has been largely overlooked.

Let’s look at three key factors that have driven Covid-19 cases in marginalized communities: screening, testing, and tracing.

Our current screening, testing and tracking system is based on the assumption that people at risk for Covid-19 will have easy access to doctors and facilities who can screen them for the likelihood of exposure. It is also assumed that they can easily travel to a local facility to obtain a test and provide the information that medical personnel need to determine other possible exposures (traceability).

However, this idea overlooks the people who live near these types of facilities. People living in underserved communities already have no access to health care facilities, ranging from difficulty physically getting to a facility (lack of transportation) to a lack of primary care providers to seek advice. These and other factors can prevent a reliable (and fair) system of screening, testing, tracking, and treatment in place.

Technology can significantly bridge this gap. While technology is not a panacea, it can help connect marginalized populations more easily with care and researchers, and ensure their voice is heard during research.

  • Screening: By circumventing the logistical and financial challenges of in-person visits to a healthcare facility or health care provider, today’s digital screening apps offer an alternative by resting on a platform that is already in the hands of most people – a phone. Algorithms can determine the likelihood of exposure and related symptoms, much like a provider can, digital screening tools can individuals (e.g. exposure without the barrier of a doctor’s visit.
  • Testing: Home test kits are becoming increasingly popular. These test kits can be carried out easily and precisely from home and given to those in need. The results can be sent to a laboratory and then the person can be informed of the results. This work can easily be done remotely without a potentially ill person having to interact face-to-face with another person.
  • Follow-up: These results can also be automatically fed into local health systems that are set up for contact follow-up. For example, the DC Contact Trace Force, an initiative of the Washington, DC Department of Health, can educate other people about potential exposures and provide them with the proper guidance and information they need to manage their isolation.

These systems do not work alone. They need to be incorporated into a workflow that triggers the next phase of the process. For example, the same app that scans a person and determines a high likelihood of infection can automatically request that that person be sent a home test kit from a participating laboratory facility. In some cases, test results can trigger an automatic alert to both the patient and their care facility for contact tracing.

This system has proven itself, but is not yet the norm. What is holding us back? It is certainly not due to the technology. As you can see, it already exists on the market. Instead, it is the funding and government support that is needed to scale these existing tools onto a single platform and facilitate the diffusion and awareness that the platform exists for all communities to access.

Imagine if only a fraction of the resources the government has devoted to vaccine research and distribution are used simply to build a platform for what is already there and introduce it to America’s marginalized communities (among other things). It is easy to imagine how much we could be able to contain the spread and dire effects of this virus in our communities.

As we continue our national conversation on the power of justice and diversity, I sincerely hope that our policymakers and elected leaders also pay attention to the relatively low hanging fruits that lie before their eyes – an effective solution that will greatly reduce the disproportionate harm could that Covid-19 inflicts marginalized communities.

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