By Rebecca Moore, European Institute of Women’s Health
Digital health can play a pivotal role in reducing gender inequalities in health by empowering patients (women and men) to take control of their own treatments. However, we must ensure that barriers that currently stand in the way of achieving this goal are addressed at an early stage to ensure social and gender equity issues aren’t exacerbated by technology.
Digital health has the capacity to revolutionise healthcare – in many ways it already has. Millions of Europeans are now accessing eHealth through the use of wearable devices and health apps. eHealth is allowing patients to access their own health records. Tele-health is supporting faster access to a doctor and easier access for rural patients. Data collection – which sometimes is referred to as the new blood – is being collected enabling monitoring and research that previously was unthinkable. The enormous benefit for research is obvious.
However, what is less obvious are the barriers for many European patients, women especially, to access these services. Such barriers range from macro barriers due to national infrastructures such as access to broadband in rural parts of the country, to national health policies in place that need to emphasise and invest in strategies for eHealth programmes taking gender differences into account.
Personal barriers, such as cost will also affect access to digital health. A person must be able to access a smart phone, tablet or computer as well as having affordable broadband access. Women in general have less resources, making this aspect especially pertinent to them.
In addition, digital literacy is one of the main barriers for patients. Studies have shown that age, gender and education all affect digital literacy and many Europeans lack the computer skills necessary to take advantage of digital health. A patient must also be able to understand the information available through the eHealth interface for it to be useful for them. If the patient does not have a certain health literacy level, they will not be able to benefit.
Resistance to change is another issue that impacts patients. Patients must be motivated to learn through inclusion right from the start of digital policy development.
Data collection should be done in a gender sensitive and equitable manner, and the right to patient privacy must not be compromised. Patients must know that their health data is safe, and that the system is reliable as patients need be able to trust the system they are asked to use.
It is essential that patients – women and men – are active partners in building the eHealth platforms and national health systems need to make this a priority to avoid increasing health inequalities. A gender-sensitive approach is mandatory to ensure that the programmes which are rolled out reach women as well as men. With thoughtful planning based on gender analysis from the outset eHealth can help ease gender inequalities. This, in turn, will allow all Europeans to access the full potential of eHealth and enable true patient empowerment.