In September, the United States government announced that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is giving some 1,300 community health centers nationwide almost a billion dollars. This is meant to fund mobile medical units, vaccine storage freezers, telehealth technology, facility construction and renovation, and other needs related to Covid-19. The money will come from the American Rescue Plan funds.
This is much needed because community health centers serve the most marginalized groups in society with low incomes. They are mostly uninsured. According to the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC), their fastest-growing group of patients is comprised of those who are aged 65 and older. They often have chronic health problems that put them at higher risk of serious illness and complications from Covid-19.
How Community Health Centers Started
The first community health center in the U.S. was the rural Delta Health Center established in Mound Bayou in Mississippi in 1967 by young Black doctors from across the nation, including Dr. Robert Smith. At that time, segregation was present even in the health system. As part of the civil rights movement, the doctors believed that everyone must have equal access to healthcare.
They chose Mound Bayou because it was one of the most impoverished towns. In the county of Bolivar, which had no clean water for drinking and no indoor plumbing. Black county residents had an unemployment rate of 75 percent. There was inadequate healthcare. Delta Health Center provided free healthcare for the disadvantaged.
Delta Health Center has since then expanded to 18 clinics in five counties in the state. As of June this year, it had vaccinated more than 5,500 people.
Community Health Centers in the Age of Technology
Today, community health centers can leverage the use of digital technology to improve their services. One of the examples is a mobile integrated healthcare system that responds to people who call in for health needs that are not emergencies. These people do not need to be taken to the hospital but can receive the necessary medical attention at home.
Advanced information technology (IT) directs the call to a paramedic or doctor, as needed, and tracks all calls, collates the data of all patients, and processes the data. If the paramedic or doctor needs the medical history of a patient, it can be called up on a dashboard in an instant.
Such data collection and processing also enable quick and easy reporting. This is very important, especially to funding agencies. It likewise enables community centers to assess their performance in serving their communities.
IT enables community health centers to provide telehealth services. This saves time, especially when there is a shortage of paramedics and doctors. They can serve more people within a certain period as compared with going from house to house. This is crucial during the pandemic when many people do not feel safe going to hospitals or health centers for fear of infection but need to consult for other medical conditions.
Community health centers nowadays do not work alone. They connect and collaborate with various community institutions and organizations like hospitals, emergency medical services (EMS), mental health facilities, and law enforcement agencies, as well as other community health centers nationwide.
With an integrated IT system, information can be shared in real-time for quick responses. The sharing of data also enables community health centers and other organizations to learn from each other’s best practices and come up with joint efforts and projects for their communities.
Data sharing can make networks vulnerable to hacking, though. Everyone connected must implement strict cybersecurity protocols. Cybercriminals are particularly targeting healthcare institutions. As early as October last year, the HHS sent out a joint alert with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) against such threats.
Even with tight budgets, community health centers must invest in professional cybersecurity measures. This involves cybersecurity training for all staff, automatic continuous data backup, and secure storage of backup data on the cloud. Since community health centers cannot afford to have full IT staff and equipment, these must be outsourced to a trustworthy third-party service provider.
In the event of a breach, the service provider must fully restore all data with no losses. This is crucial so that health services can continue with no or short downtimes. Despite that, a breach must be prevented at all costs because cybercriminals can sell patients’ data. The community health center will be held liable for such exposures and can face fines and other penalties.
Community health centers provide invaluable help to their communities and deserve support and praise. They also carry a huge responsibility that cannot be taken lightly.