How UCSF’s accelerator is helping health tech reach more low-income patients

Global digital health investment reached a record high from $57.2 billion in 2021, according to CB Insights. However, the healthcare industry is a long way from seeing a significant return on this investment in the form of sustained cost reductions or improved outcomes.

A large reason for this may be because low-income patient populations, who face disproportionately worse health outcomes than their higher-income counterparts, are also the most likely to encounter barriers to health technology use . That’s what Courtney Liles, co-founder of SOLVE Health Techthe UC San Francisco Health Equity Accelerator, believes — and she’s determined to change that.

There are a number of reasons why health technology can be out of reach for low-income patients, according to Lyles. For example, a startup may offer services only in English or struggle with misconceptions about marketability to serve the Medicaid population. In other cases, companies may not know how to reach out low-income patients. To help the latter category of startups, Lyles co-founded SOLVE Health Tech in 2019 with Dr. Urmala Sarkar, a UCSF clinician.

“We’re close to Silicon Valley, so a lot of digital health companies would come to us ad hoc to learn more about patient populations,” Lyles said. “In 2019, we systematized all these arrangements and projects, deciding that it would be much more efficient for us to work with companies in parallel and try to be more propulsive.”

Some accelerators take equity stakes in the startups they work with, but Lyles said that would be “really challenging” given that UCSF is a public organization. Instead, SOLVE Health Tech pursues collaborative research projects with companies that span 12-18 months and focus on better tailoring health technology to the needs of low-income patients. The university-funded accelerator consists of research and clinical staff that span a range of expertise.

The three companies the accelerator has worked with so far are Applied VR, InquisitHealth and Somnology MD. All three companies have published at least one research paper with SOLVE Health Tech, and the accelerator expects to publish “one, if not two more papers” for each of those companies in the next few months, according to Lyles.

Each company came to the accelerator with different needs. For example, AppliedVR—a virtual reality platform designed to reduce the amount of opioids patients need to manage their pain—approached SOLVE Health Tech after building a strong base of commercially insured patients. The company sought the help of the accelerator because it realized that chronic pain was a huge problem among Medicaid populations and had not focused on testing its product in that population.

When the accelerator put the headsets on Medicaid-covered UCSF patients, more than 95 percent of them had never touched a VR platform in their lives. Getting their feedback on the technology helped AppliedVR fine-tune its platform, and the startup also talked with UCSF clinical leaders about what it would take for providers to consider VR as an acceptable treatment service in their chronic pain management arsenal.

Research looked different for InquisitHealth. The startup’s peer mentoring-as-a-service solution seeks to address the social determinants of health by connecting patients with a disease coach based on shared conditions, age, language, medication types, demographics and co-morbidities. When the company came to SOLVE Health Tech, it had collected a wealth of clinical data about its patients, but wasn’t sure how it could use that data to further develop its platform.

InquisitHealth is collaborating with accelerator researchers to better understand what is working and what can be improved to better reach the Medicaid population, allowing it to quickly understand its data and move into the process of redesigning the product.

In the coming years, Lyles expects the accelerator to continue research with additional startups. She also thinks there’s room to bring more stakeholders into the program, such as payers and investors, so they can all work together to improve health technology’s ability to reach low-income patients.

SOLVE Health Tech stands for “Overcoming barriers for low-income and vulnerable patients every day through Health Tech.” People would probably agree that if the accelerator really achieves its mission of helping digital health companies better serve low-income patients, it can be forgiven its clunky name.

Ksenia Zvezdina, Getty Images

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