Last Thursday, May 11, the Digital Health Innovation Team convened its 6th Digital Health Innovation Forum. This event focused on technology assisting safety net clinics in the Kansas City area. Strategy leaders from Swope Health Services, Samuel U. Rodgers Health Center, Wyandotte Community Health Center, and Kansas City CARE Clinic led the discussion.

The situation of constrained resources in health care is particularly acute for safety net providers who serve so many community members who have little ability to pay. Yet, as cited by Shannon Johnston of Samuel U. Rodgers, one of the largest barriers to serving needy populations is a lack of community awareness of available free or low-cost programs and services. Safety net clinics often have to do a significant amount of promotion just to make people aware of the clinic’s existence and services. Then, there is the need to target advertising of specific services toward the people who need them, and the final step is often related to impressing upon someone the necessity of the services provided. That final step can be the hardest because of the often inherent distrust of free medical services in underserved communities. There is also a stigma to overcome when providing certain medical services, especially those related to behavioral health or to infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS.

“Barriers [to access] are just as big of a threat to health as an infection,” said Kansas City Digital Drive’s Community Health Strategist, John Fitzpatrick.

One of the preconceptions challenged in the Forum was the impression that safety net providers do not collaborate well. Possibly arising from the view of having to raise funds from similar sources and be able to demonstrate distinctive value, Kansas City CARE Clinic’s Dennis Dunmyeron challenged this notion, citing the expansion of the Community Health Worker initiative and other such engagements. While Dunmeyer indicated that there are always more and better ways to work together, he trusts that all providers appreciate that the need is greater than all the providers put together and that they are serving the same populations for very similar motivations.Though safety net participation in health information exchanges is vital, Dunmyer also emphasized a desire to work with others to turn available data sources into real knowledge and power for the community.

Another obvious challenge to the preconception was the engaged conversation the presenters had among themselves and others as they awaited the event’s start. During the formal discussion, Dr. Manuel Solano, also raised the issue of the power of data, and he shared elements of a framework he currently is drafting. Michelle Keller pointed to the broad range of services offered by her organization, Swope Health, but stressed the need for patients to experience greater continuity – and accuracy – as they traverse multiple providers. And Patrick Sallee of Wyandotte Community Health noted that collaborative willingness is not an issue. For instance, his biggest current challenge – and opportunity – is to bind together the strengths of three different organizations merging services in Wyandotte County.

KCDD expressed its desire to help such organizations with outreach beyond their four walls. Just as small examples, KCDD could potentially work health literacy into digital literacy programs through the Kansas City Coalition for Digital Inclusion, and leverage civic technology programs such as Code for KC to improve user access to health-related resources, as well as provider access to patient data.

Fitzpatrick also impresses the idea that a key KCDD asset in improving access to the benefits of digital health in the broader community is its ability to connect with so many community players and promote common perspectives like health literacy and human factors in technology education. KCDD’s network within the respective “ecosystems,” locally and nationally, can open up new project opportunities, collaborations, perspectives, and learning for all concerned parties.

“As a start, though, we need to take the lead from safety net providers to acknowledge that it’s not just targeted populations that need to change their behaviors. Why is it always someone else? We on the serving side need to change our own behaviors in opening up health knowledge and resources to empower individuals and communities. If technology can incorporate this much broader concept of human factors, it will have a huge role to play,” Fitzpatrick said. “It is practical demonstration and value-added projects with these kinds of perspectives that KC Digital Drive strives to elicit and engage in the metro area. We are eager to publish more of the perspectives from this forum and from other projects in a report later this year.”

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