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Don’t ignore digital competency as a component of ROI

Despite the uncertainty and new demands that two-plus years of the pandemic have created, now is the time for hospitals to create a purposeful strategy to address social determinants of health.

COVID-19 repositioned the importance of telehealth and outcome disparities. At their intersection is “digital,” the competency that determines whether people can actually use the tech tools that healthcare stakeholders have built for them.

While digital needs are secondary to having somewhere to live and enough to eat, digital tools are how people often access needed resources and are a primary point of intersection between providers and the populations they serve — patients and the broader community.

This blog details why digital competency is a distinct and important metric that can help hospitals calculate social risk to make better business decisions and create better outcomes.

Digital competency: Definition, dimensions and risk

As highlighted in a prior blog, digital is one of six social determinants of health categories that DataGen uses to help hospitals measure social risk: the non-clinical vulnerabilities that affect individuals and the community. The SDOH categories — which also include food, housing, transportation, finance and health literacy — can be used discretely or collectively to assess risk, design and deploy interventions, and quantify their impact for the people who need them most.

Pew Research data from June and July 2021 highlights several digital disparities:
  • Black and Hispanic adults have lower broadband access — 71% and 65%, respectively, compared to White adults.
  • A similar number of Black and Hispanic adults — 69% and 67% — are also less likely to own a computer.
  • Twenty-seven percent of low-income Americans without broadband access use their smartphone as their computer — more than double since 2013.
The pandemic has further revealed this digital divide, hiding in plain sight.

If you build it, they will come — but can they get through the door when they arrive?

To help change these realities, DataGen’s Digital SDOH data — licensed through Socially Determined ­— includes three dimensions:
  • Access: Broadband availability plus computer/smartphone ownership and public internet access.
  • Affordability: Internet costs, individually and as a function of overall budget/resource availability.
  • Literacy: Technological understanding and skills.
These dimensions help hospitals calculate risk to create solutions that work (e.g., tech tools a consumer needs and can actually use).

No provider intentionally builds digital doorways that no one can walk through. What a hospital thinks of as a “user-friendly portal” — one that may have cost millions — may feel like a brick wall to a struggling patient.

Linking digital competency to return on investment

Digital access, affordability and literacy put providers at risk, too. If a patient portal is built to optimize referrals, service utilization and cost, it can’t fulfill these important goals if people can’t use it.

Unmet social need creates operational risk. Peeling back just a few layers reveals how SDOH can link to and even predict ongoing hospital pain points, such as emergency room misuse. Digital competency is a concrete metric that helps calculate social risk through multiple data points. As with all SDOH data that DataGen licenses, hospitals can work with DataGen to scope need down to the ZIP Code level.

Use your health equity mandate

The pandemic laid bare three digital health realities: that stakeholders can adapt quickly when they need to, that useful technology can help and that the best solutions outlast the crises that catalyzed their development. For all of its challenges, COVID-19 generated a kind of health equity mandate that hospitals can leverage to create better outcomes for their patients, their communities and their own bottom lines.


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