Understand how we got here — and how to move forward.

Our Take

Advancing Digital Equity Through Literacy and Design

Device access and connectivity are significant but surface-level challenges of digital inequity. Many digitally disconnected patients encounter barriers to digitally enabled heath care because of poor technological literacy, online language barriers, or inaccessible user experience.

Tackling digital inequities require investments and partnerships  that promote patients’ digital literacy and engage them as active online participants with their health care. A patient-centered approach to digital literacy helps health care organizations drive better adoption of virtual tools and effect durable change for their patients.


Digital literacy [ˈdijidl ˈlitrəsē ] noun

Digital literacy refers to the ability to use information technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate, requiring both cognitive and technical skills. This includes the ability to navigate electronic devices, conduct online searches, and engage in digital communication.


The conventional wisdom

Lack of access to technology is a social determinant of health. While digital inequities in health care are not new, the rapid scaling and use of technology for digitally-enabled care has increasingly excluded disconnected patients from accessing care.

Yet, when health care organizations think about digital inequity, they think narrowly. They think of the issue as a binary, infrastructure-driven concern. As a result, payers and providers either focus their efforts on increasing device access for their patient populations or otherwise punt the responsibility to policy stakeholders to improve regulations on broadband connectivity and affordability. This ignores critical pieces of the digital equity puzzle, such as patients’ digital literacy, accessible design, and sustained digital engagement. 

This present thinking isn’t necessarily incorrect. Device access and network connectivity are foundational components of digital inequity. Health care organizations have had success in improving digital gaps in care by driving grant funding and investments for improved technology access and broadband coverage. 

However, the more difficult component in tackling digital inequities and bringing more patients online is digital literacy education and buy-in. The distinction to be made here is between access and accessibility: providing a device or network is one step towards addressing digital inequity, but ensuring patients have the digital skills, confidence, and ability to use that technology is the true rate-limiting step of this issue.


Our take

While device access and network connectivity are critical players in digital inequity, they are also surface-level elements that do not reflect the deeper-rooted components of this issue.

Advancing equity in the digital space requires investments and partnerships that promote patients’ digital literacy and user experience so that they can build self-efficacy and more actively engage with the digital resources available to them.

Digital equity solutions must be more than a portfolio of device investments or policy-based advocacy. Stakeholders across the health care ecosystem have the opportunity—and responsibility—to marry these existing investments and efforts with digital literacy solutions that pave a more equitable, inclusive path forward for all patients. 


Three opportunities to improve digital literacy in patient populations

Equipping patients with the digital education needed to drive lasting, equitable adoption of virtual tools is no easy task—but it is a crucial step towards promoting patients’ confidence, competence, and self-efficacy in an increasingly digital world.

After speaking with leaders in this space, we’ve identified three key opportunities for health care organizations to target their digital literacy efforts.

  • Opportunity

    Provide services to improve patient digital literacy

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  • Opportunity

    Incorporate interpreter and language services into digital tools

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  • Opportunity

    Build and update platforms for improved accessibility and inclusive end-user experience

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Parting thoughts

One element of successful digital literacy efforts rings true across nearly all  our conversations with players in this space: community partnership and collaboration. Tackling digital literacy is no small feat. Whether from a resource or—and perhaps more critically—a community engagement perspective, organizations cannot expect to do this work alone.

Here, community organizations can build off their nuanced understanding of patient’s needs and preferences to help facilitate new interactions between providers and vulnerable populations. Partnerships with those already embedded in these communities also allows for a pipeline of patient trust and engagement that would be missing without those existing touchpoints.

Digital literacy underlines nearly every aspect of an individual’s health. By learning from community leaders and proactively engaging with disconnected populations, organizations in turn affect the health of the whole—that is, the future of not only their patients, but their health care staff, administration, and clinical workforce.

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