From behind the plexiglass barrier of her improvised help desk in the hall of the Scranton Castle senior apartment complex, Marielee Santiago passed out masks, hand sanitizer, COVID-19 info and asked residents, "How's it going with your laptop?"
In partnership with DigitalC (a nonprofit focused on improving Greater Cleveland's digital literacy and access) and with funds from Dollar Bank, MetroHealth System had helped connect units in the building with laptops, internet service and computer training, though COVID-19 limited the education piece. So, along with representatives from DigitalC and an AmeriCorps member, Santiago, director of transformative knowledge and education at MetroHealth's Institute for H.O.P.E. (Health, Opportunity, Partnership and Empowerment), staffed the temporary desk at the West 25th Street facility, part of the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority.
She taught a patient how to connect online with his provider for a prescription, showed another how to send a photo of his rash to his doctor via MyChart and helped a resident follow up with her psychiatric appointment remotely when all behavioral health visits were being done virtually or telephonically. Before her leadership role, Santiago, a social worker and leader within the Hispanic community, connected patients with resources for low-cost internet and educated them on their broadband access.
The pandemic has heightened awareness, buy-in and understanding that digital equity is truly a need for healthcare, Santiago said.
"There may have been providers that didn't think (about it) before, or didn't have that lens before until they came across this pandemic and realized, 'Wow, I have a whole slew of patients that are not able to access virtual care and telehealth appointments,' " she said.
MetroHealth is not alone in supporting digital access in the community. The Cleveland Clinic, DigitalC, TransDigm Group Inc. (NYSE: TDG) and the Lubrizol Foundation announced a partnership last year to provide affordable high-speed internet for Fairfax residents to address disparities in internet coverage.
University Hospitals this summer announced it would team up with PCs for People, a nonprofit providing refurbished computers, to help patients stay connected with laptops, hot spots and three months of broadband service to eligible UH patients. UH is also building WiFi towers on two of its locations and is engaged in a broadband expansion project in East Cleveland.
The Federal Communications Commission selected MetroHealth to participate in the digital equity program, making the system eligible to receive up to $901,000 in federal funds over the next three years for its work at the CMHA facility and in the Clark-Fulton neighborhood.
DigitalC this summer received a $20 million combined commitment from the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Supporting Foundation and the David and Inez Myers Foundation to help it expand capacity and speed up adoption of its broadband infrastructure, which DigitalC CEO Dorothy Baunach said is a call to get people connected and ensure it has the right impact on health, education and economic opportunity.