Text Size

How a Social Worker Breaks Digital Health Information Barriers

Megan McVane, LCSW, CHQP
Director, AHIMA Foundation

It might be surprising to find a social worker at the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA), but breaking barriers to health information requires an interdisciplinary approach – one consistent with the 2023 theme for Social Work Month, “Social Work Breaks Barriers.” 

Within AHIMA Foundation, where I serve as the Director of Impact Programs, I’ve been working in partnership with researchers at Jefferson Health to develop a validated digital readiness screening tool. 

Screening for Digital Readiness 

This screening tool will help healthcare providers assess the digital health literacy needs of their patients and their willingness and trust in electronic health resources (like patient portals and telehealth) – and is comparable to other screening tools used to measure various social determinants of health (SDoH)

Closing Gaps in the Digital Determinants of Health

In Forbes, Kevin Vigilante MD, MPH, Chief Medical Officer at Booz Allen Hamilton, called the digital determinants of health a “subset” of the social determinants of health in that they follow a socioeconomic gradient. He writes, “those at the lowest end of the spectrum have the greatest barriers to digital resources.”  

When I started my career working as a hospital-based social worker at Northwestern’s Transitional Care Clinic, I saw these barriers firsthand. “Transitional Care” is a new area of medicine developed to support patients as they transition from acute care settings to outpatient clinics and home. 

Making Remote Patient Monitoring Possible 

While you’ve probably seen words like “remote patient monitoring” thrown around a lot lately in the digital health world, you might not have thought about the steps involved to break down the barriers for something like that to be possible at a micro level. In other words, you don’t just give a patient a device at the same time as they get their discharge paperwork. More steps are needed to get from point A to point B. 

Screening for digital readiness is critical for remote patient monitoring success. Based on the results, for example, a healthcare provider can form a plan to address the barriers that exist in a patient’s ability to use remote tools to monitor their care from home. For example:

  • Do they have access to a smartphone?
  • Can they afford home internet? 
  • Do they know how to navigate the patient portal? 
  • Is the app in their preferred language? 
  • Do they even want to manage their health with digital technology? 

Benefits of Screening for Digital Readiness

  • Patient benefits: Healthcare providers who use our digital readiness screening tool will be able to identify a patient's needs and values around digital services. They can then adapt the care they provide and/or connect patients with resources to improve their digital health literacy. 
  • Hospital and health system level benefits: Hospitals and health systems will be able to use the SDoH data gathered through the screener to fund tailed programs for their residents and patients. For example, if a patient has low digital literacy based on the screener, z-codes can be used in their record. This data, when collected at a hospital or health system level, can provide powerful validation of need.  
  • Public health benefits: Digital readiness screening data at the population level can serve as useful for policymakers, especially those central to the Digital Equity Act

It truly does take a village to make our healthcare system function. As technology continues to evolve and our population ages, the importance of professionals skilled at breaking down barriers to health information will be even more crucial. 

In the meantime, we can continue to implement healthcare programs and policies across the country aimed at ensuring equitable digital access. 

About the Author