On Thursday, September 21, I had the pleasure of attending The National Health Information Technology (NHIT) Legislative Health Equity Summit at the Cannon House Office Building in DC. Convened in a caucus room named for Representative Nancy Pelosi, public health researchers, health equity experts, health policy specialists, and technology leaders discussed structural health inequities in underserved communities, particularly related to technology access. Since 2008, NHIT Collaborative for the Underserved, a 501(c)3 led by CEO Luis Belen, has aimed to close the equity gap and address health disparities using federal investments, broadband access, electronic health records and health IT innovation, disaster resiliency, and more.
The panel discussions and presentations centered on health equity from the patient and provider perspectives as well as the public sector and private sector perspectives, making for a robust and complex conversation around how best to achieve improved health outcomes through equitable practices and policies. Though the entire event encouraged critical conversations, a few points stood out to me.
Several speakers discussed how broadband internet access is as essential as electricity. They referenced the 1936 Rural Electrification enacted by FDR in the New Deal and how it is time for policies of that nature to facilitate internet access in all communities. The point here being a lack of internet access contributes to the widening gap between underserved communities and healthcare access. It is a necessity that living without is prohibitive to reaching healthcare via telehealth, including mental healthcare, education, and other essential services.
Karriem Watson, D.H.Sc., M.S., M.P.H., All of Us Research Program Chief Engagement Officer at NIH, captivated the room as he explained why he favors the term “under-engaged communities” to “underserved communities” as it removes onus from individuals and places it on historical and current systems of oppression and exclusion. It was moving because it reminded me how a word change can reframe responsibility and power and the importance of speaking intentionally in research and policy. In public health and health policy we frequently reference “health equity” without specific intention or action. It can be too easy to forget the full weight of health equity. Work and conversations like this remind us that the healthcare delivery system in its ideal form must serve patients indiscriminately toward best possible health outcomes.
We know what health inequity is and we know what health equity is. Now it is time for action to make healthcare access and delivery equitable for all.