How Robotics Can Increase Health Literacy in Underserved Populations

The United States is one of the wealthiest nations in the world. It is also one that spends more on healthcare per capita than almost every other industrialized nation. For all its investment in money and resources, however, the United States continues to lag behind other national health systems when it comes to patient outcomes. Indeed, the evidence shows that the United States ranks last among modern economies in patient morbidity and mortality rates.

The reality is that persistent and pernicious disparities in healthcare access and quality pervade the US healthcare system today. However, robotics are providing new hope for mitigating these inequities, particularly when it comes to using robotics to improve the health literacy of underserved populations.

What is Health Literacy and Why Does It Matter?

In essence, health literacy refers to an individual’s understanding of health management, illness, health risks, and injury and illness prevention and treatment. It also includes the capacity to locate, assess, and utilize credible health information from a variety of sources, including health information derived from online, clinical, and community-based resources.

Health literacy is critical to maintaining health and to the management of disease and disease prevention. Despite the importance of health literacy in supporting wellness, longevity, and overall quality of life, however, it is often lacking in patient populations, especially for patients in historically underserved communities. 

Poor health literacy, for example, has been strongly associated with low income, aging, and minority patient populations.

This may, indeed, account for the significant health disparities evident in the US insofar as health literacy has been found to enhance disease prevention as well as the successful management of chronic health conditions.

Health Literacy, Disease Prevention, and Robotics

One of the most significant benefits of health literacy is its profound role in disease prevention. Disease prevention, fundamentally, depends upon the patient’s understanding both of an individual’s particular health risks and of the impact that lifestyle and behavior have on either reducing or increasing these risks.

For vulnerable patient populations, particularly those without consistent and high-quality healthcare, patient education, risk management, and preventive care can be woefully inadequate. However, through the use of robotic technologies, patients may be able to access free or low-cost health education through their computers, smartphone, or telephone.

Chatbots, for instance, may be used to engage with patients, soliciting information concerning the patient’s personal and familial medical history as well as their lifestyle and behavioral habits. This data can then be deployed by the technology to develop a profile of the patient’s particular health risks and wellness needs. 

This profile can, in turn, be used to devise to formulate a curated list of online health education materials designed to inform patients of the benefits of preventive care, including strategies for weight management, oral hygiene, nutrition, and exercise and fitness. 

A Judgment-Free Zone

Another benefit of the use of robotics in defining patients’ health risks and facilitating preventative health education is that patients may respond more positively to robots than to humans in this arena. For example, a recent study of healthcare trends in robotics found that patients were more amenable to medication and other health reminders when they were delivered by social robots rather than humans. 

This may be attributed to the fact that patients can feel as if their human clinician or patient educator is judging, shaming, or criticizing them or their health habits. However, with a social robot, such fears of shame and judgment are eliminated.

Remote Monitoring and Disease Management

Robotics isn’t only useful for increasing health literacy as a tool for disease prevention. There is also evidence that robots can be highly effective in educating patients on managing chronic diseases.

For example, healthcare providers are increasingly turning to the use of telehealth devices, such as remote patient monitoring technologies, to both support continuity of care and optimize the patient’s understanding of their health status and unique medical needs. Wearable medical devices, for instance, can provide continuous tracking of a patient’s vital signs, providing real-time updates and alerts. For vulnerable populations, such as ethnic Hawaiian and Pacific Islander patients, who may not only be at high risk for certain chronic diseases, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and who may also lack access to consistent, high quality  healthcare, these technologies can go far in eliminating health disparities and saving lives.

Wearable glucose monitors, for example, can not only help diabetic patients track their glucose levels, but also understand how the patient’s behaviors impact their illness. Patients may learn, for instance, that their glucose levels rise when they are sick or have not gotten enough sleep. Similarly, they may learn that certain foods increase their glucose level more rapidly than others. 

This is a kind of personalized patient education that simply would not be possible without the use of such robotics. Moreover, for underserved populations, including the elderly, disabled, and underinsured, receiving such comprehensive, real-time health data without being seen in a clinic or hospital can potentially save the patient thousands of dollars in health screening costs. At the same time, such technologies can significantly improve health outcomes by enabling personalized, data-driven disease management strategies.

Relieving System Burden

While health literacy is fundamental to long-term wellness, the long-standing and worsening shortage of healthcare providers has had a particularly devastating impact on vulnerable patient populations. Using robotics to provide health education, whether online or in a clinical setting, can help to mitigate some of the most pernicious effects of the provider shortage. These technologies equip patients with the tools they need to increase their health literacy while freeing practitioners to focus on hands-on patient care.

The Takeaway

Health literacy is fundamental to long-term wellness and quality of life, particularly through disease prevention and management. However, underserved patient populations have long suffered from low health literacy, contributing to the significant health disparities evident in the United States today. There is hope on the horizon, however, in the form of robotics. Robotics are increasingly being used to increase the health literacy of vulnerable patient populations. From online patient education to health chatbots to monitoring devices that provide real-time patient data, robots are educating and empowering patients in historically marginalized communities across the nation.

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