Quality & Governance News

Leveraging COVID-19 Data to Eliminate Healthcare Disparities

COVID-19 data can help leaders reduce healthcare disparities in lower-income and underserved communities.

Source: Thinkstock

By Jessica Kent

- COVID-19 data gathered during the pandemic has shed light on significant healthcare disparities, revealing poorer outcomes in minority and underserved communities.

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The virus has disproportionately impacted black and Hispanic populations, with these individuals suffering higher rates of infection and mortality. These trends are alarming, and they highlight how essential it is to address gaps in care.

In a recent webinar conducted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, healthcare industry experts discussed the pressing need to collect and evaluate COVID-19 data to ensure individuals receive the resources they need.

“States and communities have begun reporting that the pandemic is disproportionately affecting people of color, but the available data on the pandemic is not robust enough to support an appropriate response that promotes health equity within our communities,” said Karen Anderson, senior program officer at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

READ MORE: How Will Big Data Analytics Factor into the Next Phase of COVID-19?

Data gaps can result in skewed perceptions of how the pandemic is impacting certain patient populations. In late March, officials conducted an analysis of COVID-19 cases in Shelby County, Tennessee, noted Lawrence Brown, director of county health rankings and roadmaps at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

The analysis showed that the eastern part of the county had a higher rate of COVID-19 cases, which may not have reflected the reality of the situation.

“What was really happening was that COVID-19 testing was taking place only on the east side of the county – which is the wealthier side of the county. In late March, testing was not being conducted in the western part of the county – the less affluent portion,” said Brown.

“There are also more healthcare facilities available in the east side of the county, which helps explain why there was more testing in this area early on.”

The data analysis sparked much-needed change in the area, Brown said.

READ MORE: Data Visualization Tool Allows Users to Track COVID-19 Spread

“After this information was released, testing sites were set up across the county. So now, there is spatial equity – more testing sites in place to be able to test more communities, and see where the COVID-19 spread is really taking place,” he said.

In Louisiana, COVID-19 data collection and analysis has also helped improve testing rates. Rebecca Gee, CEO of Louisiana State University Healthcare Services, noted that big data dashboards and visualization tools have helped the state expand Medicaid and healthcare coverage, as well as reduce the spread of Hepatitis C. Louisiana also started using these tools to demonstrate racial disparities, particularly gaps in coronavirus care.

“This work has led to the creation of a COVID-19 data dashboard,” said Gee.  

“We were the first state in the nation to report COVID-19 healthcare disparity data by race. There were certainly counties that have done this, but Louisiana started reporting racial disparities data very early, and started reporting it by parish.”

Reporting and analyzing this data gave state leaders better insight into how to meet the needs of certain communities, Gee said.

READ MORE: Data-Driven Model Predicts Number of COVID-19 Deaths in US

“In New Orleans, instead of having the federal government set up drive-through testing centers, we started to go to communities. Many individuals don’t have cars, and couldn’t get to an area where they were able to get tested,” she explained.

These kinds of modifications are crucial to support all individuals, and not just specific parts of the country.

“There are people who think we’re fine on testing, but we’re not. We haven’t tailored our approaches to our most vulnerable communities. And the individuals in those vulnerable communities who are highest risk, and we need to engage with them,” said Gee.

“Unless we address the limited ability to get tested in vulnerable communities, we won’t be able to address COVID-19 on a broader scale.”

The data gathered from COVID-19 and other health crises in Louisiana has also led to new initiatives that can help combat gaps in care.

“In Louisiana, we established the first office of Community Partnerships and Health Equity. This was an effort to change the culture of the department, and require that every senior leader in our institution evaluate their own perceptions about race, and how that might influence their decision-making,” said Gee.

“This cultural change has paid off with COVID-19, where, at the very least, the health department has been proactive in showing rates by race, and addressing communities of color separately in terms of what their needs might be.”

Going forward, collecting information on COVID-19 will continue to help inform treatments and therapies for the virus.

“We need good data on who is participating in COVID-19 clinical trials, and we need an opportunity for our communities to participate,” said Stephen Thomas, director of the Maryland Center for Health Equity.

“We need to prepare now to increase the likelihood that marginalized communities have the opportunity to receive COVID-19 vaccinations and treatments when these drugs are developed.”

While COVID-19 has shined a spotlight on some of healthcare’s most significant issues, the pandemic also provides the industry with an opportunity to improve for the future.

“Building bridges and building trust is the key to building healthy communities,” said Thomas.

“In our zeal to return to some sense of normalcy, we need to actually look at this data that’s being presented, look at the fissures in our society that it’s exposing, and commit ourselves to returning to something better than we had.”


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