Innovator Spotlight Q&A Series: Alister Martin, MD
Q: Tell us about your innovation and the challenge(s) you are trying to solve. Who are the people involved?
AM: The COVID pandemic triggered a dramatic increase in the use of telehealth, but despite its promise, telehealth has the potential to widen the healthcare access gap and leave vulnerable patients further behind. That is because, despite widespread internet usage in the U.S., 15–24% of Americans still lack a broadband connection.
The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), a provision of the recently passed Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, provides a subsidy of $30/month for households on any internet service plan offered by a participating provider. It also provides a one-time $100 subsidy for a desktop, laptop, or tablet computer. About 40% of all U.S. households are eligible for the ACP, but only a small fraction have actually signed up.
Importantly, only 13% of Medicaid patients (who automatically qualify for the ACP) are enrolled.
Link Health leverages the health sector to connect patients to the ACP and close the digital divide in healthcare. Healthcare providers are trusted messengers in the communities they serve, and the healthcare settings in which they work offer a unique opportunity to leverage place-based access to a critical population. By leveraging tactics from political organizing and deploying them to promote ACP enrollment in healthcare settings across the country, we are helping people access this money to pay their internet bills while they are waiting in the waiting room. We have helped patients access thousands of dollars in benefits, so they have money in their pockets by the time they leave the hospital.
“Not only is there an opportunity to impact the patient’s life in a meaningful way, but my belief is that by meaningfully addressing the social and political determinants of health we have an opportunity to reduce unnecessary visits and lower healthcare costs.”
Q: The innovation process can be long and challenging. but also rewarding. What inspired you to begin this journey?
AM: Every day that emergency clinicians take care of patients in the emergency room, we see the faces of failed healthcare and public policy. We are met with the everyday violence of poverty, and for many of our patients, we are the only doctors they have. I believe it is our responsibility to not only meet patients where they are at, but use the time we have with them in front of us as a privileged moment to address some of the upstream issues that led to their coming to the emergency room in the first place. We certainly cannot solve every problem a patient has while they are in the emergency room, and I don’t think we are set up to do that, but where we can develop interventions that are nondisruptive, optional, and meaningfully change a person’s circumstance or situation in life, we should take those opportunities. Otherwise, we are simply putting a Band-Aid on the core issue and resigning the patient to simply re-present to the emergency department days or weeks later with the same issue. Not only is there an opportunity to impact the patient’s life in a meaningful way, but my belief is that by meaningfully addressing the social and political determinants of health we have an opportunity to reduce unnecessary visits and lower healthcare costs.
Q: Where are you in the innovation cycle (i.e. early stage, commercialization)?
AM: Link health has been deployed in several hospitals and community health centers across Boston, and we are beginning to explore collaborations with several for-profit partners who have a vested interest in making sure that their patients have access to the Internet so they can participate in telehealth and telemedicine services.
Q: What internal resources at Mass General Brigham have been most helpful to you?
AM: The MGH Center for Faculty Development grant writing consultation service has been an incredibly useful tool.
Q: If you could give one piece of advice to another Innovator in the Mass General Brigham network, what would it be?
AM: What are you waiting for? No one is coming to solve that problem you have identified. Your solution may not be the prettiest, but a mentor once shared with me that “even a partial solution saves whole lives,” so get in the ring.