From electronic health records (EHRs) to smartphone apps, today’s health IT tools can help nurses develop innovative strategies for closing the gap of racial and ethnic health disparities.

One of the top priorities of President Obama’s Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act of 2009 is to reduce health disparities—such as disproportionately high rates of chronic diseases in racial and ethnic minority populations—through the “meaningful use” of EHR technology. Seven years after the passage of HITECH, how much progress have we made toward achieving that goal?

In the 2013 report Understanding the Impact of Health IT in Underserved Communities and Those with Health Disparities, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) showcases many innovative examples of how health care providers nationwide are using EHRs, as well as other types of health IT, to increase access to care and improve health outcomes in communities of color. From the rural Mississippi Delta to immigrant and low-income communities in large metropolitan areas, “health IT offers promising tools to address chronic diseases by facilitating the continuity of care and long-term follow-up needed for successful management of these conditions,” the report concludes.

That, of course, is where nurses come in. Take a close look at successful model programs that are deploying health IT to help close the gap of unequal health outcomes and you’ll see nurses—including hospital and clinic RNs, nurse practitioners, informatics nurses, case management nurses, nurse researchers, and more—playing leadership roles.

“Nurses are coordinators of care for patients. We’re typically the first person they see when they seek health care,” says Joyce Sensmeier, MS, RN-BC, CPHIMS, FAAN, vice president of informatics at HIMSS. “It’s really a natural extension of the nurse’s role with patients to connect the dots from the information technology side.”

For most nurses, health IT begins with the EHR. This essential platform enables them to instantly access a patient’s complete health record, document patient data in real time, monitor changes in the patient’s condition, and use clinical decision support tools—such as computerized alerts—to respond to those changes. But increasingly, nurses are also waging war against health inequities by arming themselves with an arsenal of other high-tech tools, including the following:

• patient portal websites, which give patients convenient access to their personal health information and enhance communication between clinicians and patients;

• health information exchanges, which allow patient data to be securely shared between different providers—such as hospitals, ERs, and primary care providers—to improve continuity of care;

• wireless and mobile health (mHealth) technologies, such as smartphone apps and text messaging;

• external databases, such as state and national disease registries and immunization registries, that collect clinical information about specialized populations of patients across a large geographic area; and

• population management software (PMS) systems, which help nurses track health trends among specific groups of patients they care for—for example, pediatric patients, or patients with diabetes.

Seeing the Bigger Picture

For nurses who are working to improve minority health outcomes, one of the biggest advantages of using health IT is that these tools make it easier than ever before to capture, compare, and analyze patient data. And that translates into unprecedented opportunities for leveraging that data to better manage the needs of patients with chronic illnesses, identify gaps in care, and develop targeted interventions.

“Clinicians have always been information workers,” says David Hunt, MD, FACS, medical director of patient safety and health IT adoption at the ONC. “It’s just that so often we’re focused on that one patient, that one chart. IT tools give you the ability to step back and look across groups of patients to really get insight into how to make care better.”

In other words, these technologies maximize nurses’ ability to address health disparities from a population health perspective. You can “slice and dice” the data stored in the EHR to classify and group patients in many different ways—for example, by race, ethnicity, age, and gender. Nurses can also zero in on patients who have particular conditions—such as heart failure, asthma, or HIV—to generate condition-specific reports and action plans, says Wanda Govan-Jenkins, DNP, MS, MBA, RN, lead nurse informaticist for the ONC.

“You can look at the EHR and extract these groups of patients to see which patients’ blood pressure was elevated at their last visit, or which patient hasn’t been seen for a while,” she explains.

Patient portals are another vehicle for communicating chronic disease management reminders to whole populations of patients, adds Lisa Oldham, PhD, RN, NE-BC, FABC, vice president of practice operations and chief nursing officer at the Institute for Family Health, which provides care to medically underserved communities at multiple facilities in New York City and state. The institute’s portal, MyChart MyHealth, is available in both English and Spanish (MiRecord MiSalud).

“We can create an electronic letter for the entire organization’s patients who fall into a specific category and send it to them through the portal,” Oldham says. “The patient will get an e-mail that says, ‘Please go into your MyChart,’ and that’s where they’ll see the letter. For instance, we just sent out an e-mail blast to all our geriatric patients reminding them to come in for their annual wellness visit.”

At the Cherokee Indian Hospital (CIH) in North Carolina, a tribal health system that serves more than 14,000 members of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, care management nurses develop outreach campaigns using the hospital’s PMS, which works in conjunction with the EHR.

“By pulling data out of these platforms, our nurses can target in and pinpoint things like how many people need to get a colorectal cancer screening or a Pap test,” says Sonya Wachacha, MHS, RN, CCM, executive director of nursing at CIH. “Then the nurse generates a reminder letter to that person, such as ‘Mrs. Smith, it looks like you’re due for your mammogram. Can you please come in and get that done?’”

On an even larger scale, says Hunt, “disease registries are wonderful resources, because you can identify characteristics and trends that you don’t have insight into when you’re just looking at a group of patients within your own practice. Having the benefit of looking at large amounts of data from many, many providers gives you tremendous insight in terms of being able to infer more information about your patient population.”

Educate, Engage, Empower

Nurses are also finding that consumer-driven health IT tools, like patient portals and mHealth technology, can offer exciting new ways to help patients who are living with chronic diseases become better educated about their conditions, more engaged with their treatment, and more empowered to self-manage their own health.

Patients can log into their care provider’s portal and access disease management educational materials, which health systems can tailor to meet the needs of limited-English-speaking and low-literacy patients. For example, the Institute for Family Health’s portal has links to patient education resources in more than 40 languages.

At the Institute’s Ellenville Family Health Center in Ellenville, New York, a rural community with one of the highest poverty levels in the state, “the most prevalent disease processes in our patient population are diabetes and cardiovascular problems,” says staff nurse Santiago Diaz, RN. “The portal has information specifically for these patients. We walk them through the basics of where to find the information, and we show them the shortcuts so that they don’t get lost in all the information that’s up there.”

Because nearly everybody today seems to have a smartphone or cellphone, these devices can help nurses connect with hard-to-reach populations, such as young people. Jo-Ann Eastwood, PhD, RN, CCNS, CCRN, associate professor and advanced practice program director at UCLA School of Nursing, recently conducted a research study that used custom-designed smartphone apps to teach young African American women who were at high risk for heart disease how to make heart-healthy lifestyle changes.

“When we look at chronic disease prevention in minority populations,” she says, “we have to look at the population that’s between 25 and 45 years old, or even younger. If we’re going to develop prevention strategies that are relevant to this population that is very technologically astute, that is fast-moving, that is busy, we have to hit them where it’s salient.”

Govan-Jenkins, who is also a professor of informatics in the graduate program at Walden University School of Nursing, recommends teaching patients how to download and use the many free or low-cost mobile apps that are available in the consumer health marketplace. For instance, there are diabetes management apps that let patients monitor their blood glucose levels and upload that data to their patient portal for nurses to track.

“Patients who have smartphones or mobile devices can download continuous self-monitoring apps that let them see things like how many steps they took that day and how many calories they burned,” Govan-Jenkins continues. “The nurse can also send weekly or monthly text messages to condition-specific groups of patients, such as reminding them to take their medication.”

Ultimately, Wachacha believes, being able to interact with their own health data and personally follow their progress toward meeting their health improvement goals can make a big difference in engaging patients to take a more active part in their care.

“With our EHR, we can create graphs that let patients see how their blood sugar or blood pressure readings are going up or down over time,” she says. “When our tribal members who have diabetes, for example, can look at that graph and see that their A1C levels are going down after they start exercising, it’s meaningful for them. It gets them motivated to do more with their care, because they can see that the things they’ve done are having an impact on their results.”

Reaching Across Barriers

According to the ONC report, health care providers must find solutions for overcoming “challenges and barriers to the use of health IT” in medically underserved communities of color. Some of those challenges include limited access to Internet service and cellphone connectivity in underdeveloped rural areas, cultural and linguistic differences, and low rates of technology literacy among these patients.

Telehealth remote monitoring systems (software-based IT tools that let nurses collect data via a device they install in the patient’s home) are an effective strategy for reaching patients in rural communities who don’t have access to computers, says LaVerne Perlie, MSN, RN, senior nurse consultant at the ONC.

At the initial home visit, telehealth nurses show patients how to record their health information, such as blood pressure readings, and enter those numbers into the system. “That data is sent directly to the nurse in the provider’s office so that he or she knows when to come out and visit the patient and make recommendations for ongoing care, such as scheduling an office visit or even a hospital admission,” Perlie explains.

As members of the nation’s most trusted profession, nurses are ideally suited to educate patients who are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with technology about how to use health IT tools and become more computer-literate.

At Institute for Family Health facilities, patients receive information about MyChart MyHealth as soon as they walk in the door. In the examination room, says Oldham, nurses explain how the portal works and the benefits of using it. They answer any questions the patient has. Then they help patients register for the portal right there, guiding them through the process of how to log in, create a correctly formatted password, and navigate the website. For patients who don’t have a computer at home, “we encourage them to use the computers at the public library [or to download the MyChart MyHealth mobile app to their smartphone if they have one],” adds Diaz.

Still, another challenge cited in the Understanding the Impact of Health IT report is that “customization of off-the-shelf health IT products often necessary to ensure that they [meet] the needs of underserved populations.” For example, the Cherokee Indian Hospital serves a patient population that has a high risk for suicide, substance abuse, and tobacco use. Because its EHR and PMS didn’t include functions for monitoring these risks, the hospital had to add them.

Hunt and Perlie emphasize that the best way hospitals can make sure their investment in technology will provide information that’s the right fit for their population health management needs is to get nurses involved in the design of health IT systems right from the start—before the technology is implemented. Many health IT projects fail, Govan-Jenkins cautions, because the implementation team didn’t seek input from frontline nursing staff. “And then they had to rebuild and re-implement the system, because it was just not capturing the data they needed to capture for their specific type of patients.”

That, says Sensmeier, is what reducing health disparities through the meaningful use of health IT is really all about. “It’s not just about adopting the technology. It’s about using it in such a way that we can capture the data that’s been entered and learn from it—learn what makes an impact in different patient populations, what care models and treatments work, what outcomes are being realized, and how we can change our practice.”

Pam Chwedyk

Pam Chwedyk is a freelance health care writer based in Chicago. She is a former editor of Minority Nurse.

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