Civic Collaboration spotlight: Bridging the digital health divide in Memphis, Tennessee

Story contributed by Team Memphis, 2021 Civic Collaboration summer: Kayden Hunt ’24, Allison Reilly ’24, Ashton Rierson ’24, and Symone Welch ’24. 

Remote work. Virtual classes. Online grocery shopping.

For many Americans, the COVID-19 pandemic redefined daily activities while accelerating the growth of the digital age. Access to reliable WiFi at home became less of a luxury and more of a necessity to maintain a basic livelihood. 

Within the healthcare system in Memphis, the pandemic galvanized a transition to telehealth. But as clinics enhanced their online services—with the hopes of serving more patients, more efficiently—many were left behind. 

For their Civic Collaboration summer, a group of Morehead-Cain Scholars from the Class of 2024 researched the city’s digital health divide. Kayden Hunt ’24, Allison Reilly ’24, Ashton Rierson ’24, and Symone Welch ’24 identified core factors that hinder telehealth accessibility and what might be done to address them. 

Civic Collaboration is a Summer Enrichment Program experience in which rising second-year scholars investigate their designated communities’ challenges and opportunities and propose meaningful solutions.

Learning from Church Health’s pivot to digital

The team found that the gap at the intersection of health and digital services came down to four issues: broadband access, digital literacy education, transportation, and trust. Their Civic Collaboration host, Church Health, offered a case study and playbook for how clinics can successfully transition online.

In response to the crisis, the faith-based healthcare organization transformed its behavioral health, nutrition, and primary care services to online platforms. By maintaining operations virtually, the nonprofit was able to continue providing medical services through partnerships with healthcare providers, diagnostic centers, hospitals, and nutrition experts in Memphis.

But even with the innovations, many patients weren’t able to hop on a phone or Zoom call with a physician or stream instructional online videos. What now? Enter Team Memphis.  

Mapping the gap

The scholars took a mixed-method approach for their project. First, in order to fully understand the perspectives and lived experiences of Memphians whose access to healthcare was limited by technology, they interviewed healthcare workers and administrators, school system administrators, broadband access advocates, housing developers, community center directors, and Church Health patients, among others. 

The team also collected quantitative data on broadband access through reports conducted by the city of Memphis, patient surveys by Church Health, and reports from other local nonprofit organizations.

A fuller picture began to emerge about which communities are most vulnerable.

By cross-referencing the data on a map of Memphis, the team was able to see under-resourced areas by zip code—and where an organization like Church Health could have the most impact.

Piloting the telehealth ‘hub’ model

After completing their interviews, data collection, and research on other organizations facing similar issues as Church Health, the scholars arrived at their proposed solution: to develop a telehealth “hub” or series of hubs that would connect patients directly to care at sites close to their area of town.

The team was inspired by the healthcare company M Health Fairview and a 2018 partnership between Neighborhood Christian Centers and Cherokee Health Systems, both of which modeled the telehealth hub concept.

By enabling patients to go to a hub near their homes, one fully outfitted with WiFi and necessary technology, the scholars’ plan would reduce patients’ dependence on unreliable transportation. Also, patients wouldn’t have to rely on their own home environments to receive care, educational resources, and other preventative care information. Having these hubs embedded in the communities they serve also makes patients more likely to trust the care they receive. 

The telehealth hub model is designed to facilitate appointments, decrease non-emergency ambulance calls and ER visits, and connect Memphians to other essential community resources and health-based programs, such as cooking classes that offer healthy recipes.

In their final recommendations to Church Health at the end of the project, the team recommended planning hub sites in alignment with The Memphis 3.0 Comprehensive Plan, a road map to improve transportation and transit and invest in equitable urban development within the city. The zip codes most in need of broadband access that matched the “anchors,” or centers of activities identified in Memphis 3.0, were suggested as initial priorities. 

The scholars also plan to partner with the Saint Andrews A.M.E. Church in Memphis to discuss a pilot model for a telehealth hub as the church reopens their facilities this fall, contingent on risks posed by the Delta variant.

More than a dozen teams of scholars conducted Civic Collaboration projects this year. Their dilemmas covered everything from urban planning and historical preservation to economic development and agriculture.

Becoming a Civic Collaboration host for Morehead-Cain 

Hosts propose a problem or issue for scholars to address together, provide guidance and mentorship, and share information and resources pertinent to the projects. The Morehead-Cain Scholarship provides each scholar with a cost-of-living stipend and transportation to and from the host city (hosts are not expected to provide financial assistance to scholars).

To connect with a team in your city, or to learn more about partnering with Morehead-Cain for future Civic Collaboration projects, contact Montez Thomas or visit our website.

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