How UChicago Medicine's Dr. Maia Hightower is helping bridge the digital health divide

University of Chicago Medicine's Maia Hightower, MD, said her health system is already at the leading edge of medicine. She hopes to bring it to the forefront of digital medicine as well.

"Come back and ask me in three, four years how well we are enabling that pathway of true personalized medicine for all of our patient populations, even our most vulnerable," she told Becker's.

Dr. Hightower is less than two months into her role as UChicago Medicine's chief digital and technology officer, a new position that oversees the system's IT department and digital strategy and whose direct reports include the CIO. Her job is reflective of the growing responsibilities of top tech executives at health systems, and how some organizations are opting for leaders with a clinical rather than strictly IT background.

Dr. Hightower was previously chief medical information officer for Salt Lake City-based University of Utah Health and, before that, for Iowa City-based University of Iowa Healthcare. In Iowa, she also served as chief population health officer.

She plans to view the new role, as she has much of her career, through an equity lens. In 2021, she founded Equality AI, a startup that aims to minimize biases in algorithms used for healthcare.

"COVID has shown us that when we leverage digital tools, often those who already have privilege have another access point into our healthcare system, and, if anything, that may end up widening health disparities," she said.

If, for example, a health system is touting its new patient portal app, it does no good for people who don't know how to download it. She said she's found that patients mostly have smartphones but are more likely to lack speedy-enough internet to do telehealth visits.

"One of the challenges with healthcare IT and digital in general is we're often addressing a problem in the middle, where we assume that the average person already knows how to do something and yet leave behind a good chunk of the population that actually needs to start a few steps before that," she said. "What is the pain point of the most digitally unsavvy customer?"

When Dr. Hightower was at University of Utah, librarians would help people with their digital health proficiency. The health system also allowed patients to do virtual visits through Zoom, since kids were using the tech platform for remote learning during lockdown via their school-issued laptops. Another solution is to let family members of older patients sit in on telemedicine appointments, Dr. Hightower said.

She said University of Chicago already has some "really cool processes" to decrease digital disparities. The organization builds debiased algorithms then tracks them to make sure biases don't creep in along the way.

"There aren't many health systems that are at the forefront of not only addressing bias at the algorithm level, but monitoring it through governance systems," she said.

She also hopes to utilize UChicago Medicine's partnership with the Southside Health Collaborative — a group of hospitals and safety-net clinics — to have its community health workers teach digital health literacy.

"Part of the job is technical, but also part of it is this intense commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, and ensuring that the value of digital is shared with the entire population of Chicago — specifically the South Side of Chicago — and beyond," she said.

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