Digital health’s big diversity problem

This summer, a controversial memo written by a Google employee was leaked to the public. Within the memo, the author James Damo, details how the biology of men produces “a higher drive in status.” Google quickly condemned the statements and fired Damo, citing their pledge to standup diversity within their company. And similarly, Denise Young Smith, Apple’s vice-president of diversity and inclusion, faced similar criticism for stating “there can be 12 white, blue-eyed blonde men in a room, and they are going to be diverse too because they’re going to bring a different life experience and life perspective to the conversation.”

Biased views and practices from Silicon Valley should not come as a major shock — we have known for some time that Silicon Valley has a
serious gender and diversity deficit
. And despite landmark research like Project Diane, there has been little accomplished by way of moving the needle. Current figures estimate that in some of the largest tech companies, women represent 25 percent, African Americans comprise merely 7 percent and Hispanics 8 percent of the total employee populations.

When placing a magnifying glass on the field of digital health technology, similar diversity concerns are echoed. Following the lead of the industry, several digital health technology organizations have come forward discussing the lack of gender and racial diversity in the digital health technology field. Overall, however, little has been done to address this reality.

These issues seem illogical in an industry that is rooted in the improved care of all patients. In fact, the foundational goals of digital health technology are to not only create more efficient and effective care delivery, but to increase the access and quality of care for all populations. And while there have been documented improvements in the access, quality and efficiencies of care for many patients, inequities persist. As a result, populations that traditionally face disparities continue to experience them. And in some instances these same inequities are exacerbated. This is not only morally wrong but jeopardizes the success of the industry. By not addressing inequities, some of the very reforms that underline digital health technology, like value-based payment policies, patient outcomes to the development of
new AI technologies
, risk limited effectiveness.

While several inequities require interventions on a systemic level, increased diversity in the field can accelerate the innovation, design and delivery of tools necessary to shrink health disparities. Research shows that diverse teams in technology organizations are more likely to be intelligent and creativeperform better and are better at creating solutions for a diverse consumer base: all necessary components to solving some of the toughest health care and health equity challenges.

There is some progress being made to improve the diversity of this field. Organizations like Health 2.0’s TECHQuality is taking steps to close these gaps, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has launched their Culture of Health Program aimed at increasing diversity in health care, including digital health technology. However, these are just a few small steps in a field that is ripe and in need of true inclusion.

The importance of diversity in our nation’s leading digital health technology companies cannot be understated. If we truly want to improve health care, it is important to have industry leaders, designers and creators be representative of all the perspectives, nuances, cultures, trends and needs of all members in the health communities they serve.

Danielle J. Brooks is a policy and health innovation expert.  She can be reached on Twitter @djeanbrooks.

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