Tech Leaders Target the Underserved

by David Gorn

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At Monday's opening session of the annual Health 2.0 Conference -- a health information technology meeting held this year in Santa Clara -- experts in the field said technology can be used to address some of the health disparities in California and to reach the state's underserved populations.

"There are strong predictors of limited access to health care," said Urmimala Sarkar, a UC-San Francisco resident physician and researcher, "and those are exactly the same factors that produce health disparities."

Lower income, geographic isolation, cultural differences and language barriers all contribute both to a decline in the quality of health care and access to it, she said.

"Technology can be used to increase language access," she said. "We found that patients are willing to engage, using technology." For instance, Sarkar said, 31% of cell phone users in California have used their phone to access health care information, "and in the safety-net circle," she said, "60% of patients use email, so there is an unmet need for patient interaction among the safety-net population."

David Wong is the co-founder and CEO of Direct Dermatology, a Palo Alto-based company that coordinates telehealth efforts to reach lower-income patients in underserved areas across the state.

"We send images of skin problems to our [dermatology specialist] doctors, and then we send diagnoses and treatment to the primary provider and the patient," Wong said.

"One of our targets was the underserved populations," he said. "It was a big market that was looking for these kinds of solutions."

The need was clear, Wong said, but fulfilling that need was financially tricky. "Telemedicine has been around for a lot of years, with a lot of promise," Wong said, "but finding a sustainable business model has been a huge challenge."

So Wong said he explored alternative sources of funding, such as the California HealthCare Foundation. CHCF publishes California Healthline.

"We didn't realize it at the time, but there are other sources of funding when you go down that [underserved population] path," Wong said. "The alternative sources of funding are another advantage for bringing products to this segment of the population. ... It turned out, for us, the underserved is a major market."


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