What is equity in healthcare and why does it matter?
The World Health Organisation defines equity in healthcare as the ability of everyone, regardless of sex, gender, ethnicity, disability, or religion, to attain their full potential for health and wellbeing. In other words, an equitable healthcare system ensures the absence of unfair, avoidable, or remediable differences among groups of people. Sadly, globally we are far from realising equity in healthcare, with marginalised and under-represented communities often being underserved. No wonder then that achieving health and wellbeing for all is number three of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
What are the unique characteristics of healthcare equity in the MENA region?
In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, healthcare inequities often occur across gendered lines on account of institutional and cultural biases. And regional research demonstrates the point. Based on the 2022 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report, which measures economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment, MENA has the second highest gender gap globally after only South Asia at 36.6 per cent.
While there are many complex reasons that inequality in healthcare persists, we have to stand together to address them. The immediate action we can take is to make efficient use of advanced technologies available to ensure greater equity across the sector.
How can advanced technology support greater healthcare equity?
Covid placed tremendous pressure on healthcare systems, leading to disruptions in the treatment of both communicable and non-communicable diseases. One of the most significant innovations in healthcare that we have the technology to thank is telemedicine. The expansion of telemedicine and digital prescription services has enabled patients to continue to receive non-urgent care without the need to visit a medical facility in person. This has been critical to reducing the risk of coronavirus to patients, especially those with chronic diseases while ensuring ongoing accessibility. Telemedicine also has huge implications for remote communities, where gaining physical access to a medical facility can often be burdensome.
Another revolution in healthcare is access to big data and analytics. Health information systems (HIS) are key to healthcare transformation, as they enhance efficiency, boost productivity, and lower cost. Most critically, however, regarding equity, more data can help to identify those at risk of disease, tailor treatments, and ultimately improve patient outcomes. For example, our Social Determinants of Health Analytics platform allows healthcare providers and payers to prioritise care and allocate resources for high-risk individuals and patient populations. The HIS software brings together clinical, social, and population health data to enable public and private health stakeholders to visualise a holistic, fully rounded picture of patient health. This is critically important in being able to identify those who are at greater risk of disease.
Understanding social risk factors is all part of the journey toward preventative healthcare – if we know who is at risk from what and why we can create early targeted interventions. If we can understand who is most at risk and where, we can learn how to apply specific therapeutic interventions, like the vaccine adjuvant ‘3M-052’ developed by 3M for Covid patients. It boosts the immune response and enhances the efficacy of vaccines being developed. It opens new possibilities for prevention and intervention where needed most.
Advanced technology is opening a new world of possibilities in healthcare, and, owing to the Covid pandemic, today we are seeing the momentum toward digital transformation pick up across the industry. We are also seeing vital public support for the healthcare opportunities new technologies afford. In the UAE for example, our report stated that 43 per cent of the people in the UAE expect the use of AI, data analytics, and digital health records to track and improve patient health outcomes to be among the top healthcare advancements for science to prioritise beyond Covid-19 (versus 33 per cent globally).
What more must the industry do to address healthcare equity?
Across the industry, we must do more to ensure equitable representation, which is critical to equitable outcomes. And for the medical sector, that means getting more women and under-represented minorities into STEM early. We have committed to invest $50m to address opportunity gaps and STEM education initiatives. In doing so, we hope to advance economic equity by creating five million unique STEM and skilled trades learning experiences for underrepresented individuals by the end of 2025.
And finally, we must stress the importance of collaboration across the industry to ensure greater equity. With new technologies and an evolving healthcare landscape, collaboration is essential in bringing more equity to healthcare, whether working together to implement new digital health record systems to ensure greater representation for minorities across the sector.