Partnership Aims to Bring Digital Health Access to Rural Communities


United Health Foundation, Morehouse School of Medicine collaborate to find solutions in making digital health tech more affordable for underserved communities.

The United Health Foundation announced their collaboration with the Morehouse School of Medicine’s National Center for Primary Care to examine how digital tools could be leveraged to support underserved and rural communities in four Southeastern states, according to the foundation’s website.

The collaboration is funded through a three-year, $1.1 million grant and will support scientific research examining how to make digital health technology more accessible and useful for residents of urban and rural underserved communities across Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Tennessee.

The goals of the partnership are to improve the understanding of rural and underserved residents’ access to digital programs through their providers, confirm digital tools such as electronic health records, telemedicine and wearables could help address health disparities these residents face and lastly, develop an action plan to improve access to digital tools for these communities.

“We can’t think of a better partner than Morehouse School of Medicine,” says Cory B. Alexander, executive vice president of corporate affairs for UnitedHealth Group. “We are honored to learn from their expertise, understanding and ability to build healthier communities. This partnership demonstrates the United Health Foundation’s and Morehouse School of Medicine’s shared commitment to pioneering the next generation of digital health solutions that will expand access to care and improve health outcomes for underserved patients and support primary care providers across the Southeast.”

This is the latest partnership between Morehouse School of Medicine and UnitedHealth Group, the foundation’s website says.

Morehouse School of Medicine received a previous grant from the United Health Foundation to help build health systems and technology for a local clinic. The school of medicine is part of UnitedHealth Group’s partnership with the Atlanta University Center Consortium, along with three other historically Black universities, focused on educating and training the next generation of health analytics workers.

In each of the four Southeastern states, beginning this past September, Morehouse School of Medicine researchers within the National Center for Primary Care have been holding focus groups and conducting individual interviews with local healthcare providers, surveying hundreds of health professionals, and examining Medicaid claims data, according to L.D. Platt, vice president of External Affairs Communications with UnitedHealth Group.

Platt tells Managed Healthcare Executive (MHE) that the team has been engaging various provider associations and organizations in each of the targeted states to perform these activities.

These specific states were chosen because there are significant healthcare challenges facing rural and underserved communities in the Southeastern U.S., specifically when it comes to maternal mortality and diabetes, Platt says.

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Some key findings from the America’s Health Rankings 2018 Annual Report indicate states ranking least healthy are in the south.

Some of these findings are:

Wide geographic variation and inequities in these states: North Carolina and Georgia ranking in the fourth quintile and Tennessee and Kentucky ranking in the fifth quintile (bottom 10 states). Specific state rankings are as follows – Georgia: 39th; North Carolina: 33rd; Tennessee: 42nd; Kentucky: 45th

Maternal mortality: Georgia has one of the worst overall rate in the nation. According to the 2019 Health of Women and Children Report, Georgia ranks 49th; and African American, Native American and Alaska Native women are about 3 times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women.

Diabetes: Georgia, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee have some of the highest rates of diabetes in the nation. Data from the 2018 America’s Health Rankings Annual Report has the rates at 11.4% for Georgia and North Carolina, Kentucky at 12.9%, and Tennessee at 13.1%.

“With $21 million in funding, MSM’s National Center for Primary Care has assisted more than 5,000 primary care providers and rural hospitals in GA to adopt and meaningfully use electronic health records,” says Dominick Mack, professor for the department of family medicine and director of the National Center for Primary Care at Morehouse School of Medicine. “Morehouse School of Medicine is uniquely positioned to conduct this research by virtue of our deep roots providing education and technical support for electronic health records, health information exchange and CMS value-based payment initiatives and we look forward to working with the United Health Foundation once again.”

Platt says the school of medicine has conducted research that shows providers in small, rural practices and those serving large Medicaid populations were adopting electronic health records at a slower pace than providers serving in large, urban settings with more privately insured patients.

He says the school of medicine also found low telemedicine usage rates in the Medicaid population.

“We also know, based on published research reports, that digital technology programs that exchange health information could support better patient outcomes in chronic disease management, and if implemented properly, could support better health and overcome health disparities among underserved communities,” Platt tells MHE. “However, our two organizations need scientific research to better understand how to make it easier for providers working in rural and underserved communities to share health information and adopt digital health technologies that will improve outcomes for patients.”

In addition, this research will result in the development of evidence-based interventions and an action plan that addresses barriers to digital health technology utilization in underserved U.S. communities, which could eventually lead to improved outcomes, a better patient experience and lowered health care costs.

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