Health Equity in Underserved Communities with Kornelius Bankston of techPLUG

On this week’s episode of the Empowering Patients Podcast, our co-founder Theo Harvey got a chance to talk to Kornelius Bankston, managing partner at techPLUG.

They talked about the importance of getting healthcare services and resources to underserved communities, and what role the health tech space should play in addressing those disparities. 

Theo: As our resident expert here on health equity —what are your thoughts about where you see it going? I know you’ve been really passionate about this. What do you see as the keys to a successful healthcare program in underserved areas? What makes the program successful for individuals who may not get the best healthcare now or are looking for access to healthcare?


Kornelius: Yeah, man, that’s such a loaded question. I’ve got so many thoughts around it. I think what we have learned from COVID—you have been on this health equity train well before COVID and have understood the challenges, and so have I. And so, what we have learned through COVID is reaching people where they are—as we had mentioned earlier, putting centers closer because as we know, there are social determinants of health, transportation issues, so many people don’t even have WIFI access. And so, learning through all these things that we had to grow through and learn through during this pandemic and creating spaces where individuals have lower barriers of entry in order to get the care. And so, when we think about health equity it’s really about addressing those social determinants of health.


And one of them is proximity to care. One example here in New Orleans: there is a hospital in New Orleans East. They do not have a labor and delivery service arm. However, it serves a large Black population, and people are having babies. They have to drive 30 miles out in order to get care. And so that just leads into the point of actually getting care in a close proximity to individuals who might have challenges as it relates to transportation. 


And now, since we’re living in this digitized world with, WIFI capabilities and not having 5G in some areas, we really have to think about how do we get care as close as possible in proximity, not just technology but at actually having physical structures that are close so individuals don’t have so many barriers to get there. And so broadly, I think that is one of the issues we’re facing, as it relates to closing this gap in healthy quality, we can talk through digital solutions, but you can’t have digital solutions if you don’t have WIFI 5G capabilities. And so, when you think about not even people in urban centers, but when you think about people that lives outside in rural America not being able to have fiber optic capabilities that reach their place. 


I got an example with a client out in Alabama where the lady is driving to individual’s home in remote Alabama to provide care as it relates to maternal care because the lady is about to give birth. And so, reaching people where they are. I think we’re in this space and to get care as close as possible with people and figuring that out in this technology revolution, I think that’s where we should go.


We can continue to talk about interoperability challenges. I was a fan of this back when we were talking about FinTech when I was in Atlanta. It’s like if the banking industry can figure out how to transfer information from different or multiple banks—or even through cash app—how can we not start thinking about that in the same context as health and delivering data from multiple hospital systems through different payer groups in just a click of a button as we do on with our transferring dollars. I think we’re there. We just gotta figure out how to do that in a more creative way and apply that to healthcare.


Theo: Great point. One thing I am challenged with is just understanding healthcare. It’s that people element, right? And so, having those people closer to where people live, I’ve seen a lot of digital health companies looking at providing individuals to the home and providing help right there. Do you see those programs being successful? 


Kornelius: I think so. I think we’re going back to the days of old where your physician would actually come to your house to provide you with care. And I think that’s amazing. We’re armed now with technology. If you think about Uber five years ago, you would not have thought to get in a random person’s car in order to get you some place. Right? And then now thinking about how can we use this gig economy or this gig kind of structure in order to get care directly to someone’s home?


And so we’re seeing that with Everly. We see that with 23 and Me where you can actually—well more with Everly will—you can take a test; they get you the test shipped to your home. You’ll never have to leave your home. They provide you with the results and then you can get care through telemedicine or—now I think to your point—actually getting the provider to come to your home to do that assessment. 


I think we’re living within that because some individuals are really afraid to leave their home in this pandemic. You know, it’s still ongoing, and individuals are trying to figure out how to survive and get the things they need. We’ve seen an uptick in Instacart. We’ve seen an uptick in a lot of these solutions that provide care or services directly to one’s home. So yeah, I think that makes complete sense, particularly in the times in which we’re living.


Theo: Obviously, there’s been record funding into digital health, more specifically with 2020. We saw the protests from George Floyd and other things that happened in the community. Tons of money has gone into health equity trying to figure out how to solve this problem because unfortunately, the vast majority of underserved communities were hit the hardest by COVID. We saw record numbers of individuals dying from it. 


So, what do you see? Now that we have this money here and that is helping in some aspect, where would you like to see the future of health equity going with these additional funding resources—ability to help patients where they live? Imagine if you will, you had a paint brush and could paint the future. What would that look like to you to help underserved communities?


Kornelius: Well, I’m a big fan. I’ve been this way since I was in grad school at Emory. I believe that individuals innovate and solve problems based on how they have experience life. And so with the influx of capital… However, I will give a caveat with black founders and black help tech founders. There’s still opportunity there, in order to get more dollars to them. I was talking about this the other day, we’re over mentored and underfunded compared to our counterparts. And so, I believe people will say whatever they want say about me, but I believe based on your experience, that’s how you solve problems. So, example: A kid living in South Central LA with parents who have experienced diabetes. He sees the challenges in which that community faces. I think that he could potentially have a solution, but he needs the resources (i.e.: the capital) to actually help him to address those problems.


I believe that there should continue to be a funnel of money that’s going directly to founders of color to help address some of these concerns. Because we have a unique way of looking at some of the systems that are in place that are impacting our communities and that are driving individuals not to go into the system. So, you know, I think it’s a real touchy subject with me. Now, we do see a lot of commitment. We haven’t seen a lot of flow of dollars related to this whole movement that we are in around Black Lives Matter and promises by large corporations, et cetera. 


I think there’s still a lot of work to be done. And I think that it needs to be done in a very strategic way. And that strategic way is how do get founders of color that have experience to get these dollars in order to get the solutions to people that need it most. That’s my thought around what should be done with these dollars. Not tomorrow, but today.


Theo: I read some articles about health equity researchers who’ve been in this space for decades, struggling to get dollars even though newer researchers who may come from majority backgrounds (i.e., white researchers) may have gotten the money instead. So, it is unfortunate to your point. I agree that if you view the world a certain way, you have a solution. So, you’re more passionate about that problem. Probably you’re going be more creative about solving that problem. So why the dollars should go to that person that has that energy, that understanding, because they’ll probably solve the problem the best way because they experienced it.


Kornelius: And so that’s it. When we talk about developing the solution, you develop the solution based on your experience. And so, what we lead with in techPLUG is you’ve got to develop culturally relevant solutions, especially in this age where people are not going into the doctor’s office. How does that work in these communities that are under resourced and underserved? Man, I’ll start preaching. So, I’ll calm down because I’m like, let breathe.


Theo: No, no, great. I appreciate you sharing your passion around it. It definitely shows, and we’re passionate here about serving underserved communities. 80% of the patients on our platform are from underserved communities. So, we see the pain. I’ve actually been in patient’s homes in middle Georgia, and they’re cooking, trying to deal with their grandkids, and trying to take their blood pressure. We understand the pain. They’re like, “Hey, I wanna do better, but I’m struggling with all these other things.”


Kornelius: Man, you just hit a point when you’re dealing with founders, and this is why it’s so important—the work that we’re doing here at techPLUG. So, when you deal with founders that might be in the Bay Area or founders help tech companies that might be in the Northeast, they don’t have that experience because they live in silos. 


We live where it’s comfortable, right? And so, you might live in a majority, Asian community or majority white community in the Bay Area, but your solution is supposed to reach someone in middle Georgia? And if you don’t understand their pain pointing, if you haven’t sat in their home or in their community to really understand what those challenges are, how will your solution meet their direct need to drive positive outcomes? It won’t. You’ll continue to iterate and say that they don’t get it, or there’s a learning curve and all these other things. But they don’t understand. One doesn’t understand the community and the challenges.


That’s the real piece here in this system, the systems that we’ve established—well not we, before us—these systems that are in place, and it’s across racial lines. We live where it’s comfortable for us. We live where people vibe with us. It can be past race. It could be based on how we look at the world. And so, once we get out of those silos, especially around health, this is like the thing that we’re doing that you’re doing. It is not LinkedIn; it’s not Facebook. This is actually healthcare. This is providing individuals with what everyone should have—quality healthcare. And you have to get out your silos and get uncomfortable a minute in order to get the best solution that can meet all people, as opposed to people that might have it and those that don’t.

Theo: Yeah. Well said, man. I can’t say better than that. So yeah. You mentioned techPLUG and what you guys are doing. Tell us a little bit about techPLUG and what you’re doing there in New Orleans and what your vision is there.


Kornelius: Yeah. In the future—so, I can’t speak of techPLUG without speaking of SynsorMed. We’ve been around now for three years—in March we’ll be three years old—and Theo, you were like the first client that we had, the very first. When nobody else knew what we were, what we were trying to do—and it’s still an education, an educational curve that people are really trying to understand what we do—but at the heart of what we do is we help tech founders around the country scale and grow in vulnerable populations. 


And it’s incredibly hard work. So, when you think about a company that’s trying to get their first client, and that might be—and some people go right after Stanford Health, or they go straight to Emory, and I do the flip. Let’s find a FQHC, let’s find a safety net hospital that really needs the solution.

And that will really engage with the founder in order to get it to the people that needed most. And so that’s the core of our business at tech plug. And that’s what we’ve been working on for the last three years. And here in New Orleans, we are at that place of inflection and scale. So, we have a brick-and-mortar space called the lab in Tremé and Tremé is the oldest African American neighborhood in the country. And we have a health innovation center, right? The Inman, um, to address on the ground, these problems that disproportionately impact black and brown people and underserved and marginalized communities. And so, if you can imagine people like yourself that are health tech founders that are looking to engage in looking at 3.0 their solution or looking to engage with health systems that really serve this, this is, this is the place you wanna be because we have that connectivity.

Kornelius: You can just think just looking at our building, Mr. Johns, across the street, the brother does not eat vegetables and trying to engage him around solutions that can improve his quality of life and get him off his meds, get him safely off of medication that he can live a more, you know, robust life. And so that’s the vision and that’s what we’re doing. We had our ribbon cutting on the 22nd of January. And now we’re having people come in, we’re still, you know, getting the space up and running. I’m not there today because it’s Mardi Gras in New Orleans. And so, you go out and do Mardi Gras. So, we we’re working from home today, but, yeah, the space is right there in Tremé man. We’re excited and happy about what we’re doing here.


Theo: Oh man. That’s awesome. It’s exciting…I mean, I think this is unheard of. The more I’m thinking about it, I don’t know. So, you know, obviously, you know, everyone’s kind of creating these hub centers of technology excellence, but to really kinda put it centered in an area that could use the resources and have funding and have accelerator and access to people to kind of try to pilot solutions. I mean, it’s definitely a first of its kind. Do what you’re doing out there and really trying to, you know, walk the walk. Right. Because I think, yeah, we can change the conversation around health equity in our lifetimes, because I think there’s, there’s enough technology, enough opportunities.


Kornelius: We’re the change we need…we’re the change that we need, if we’re gonna be — we wanna see change…. we’re the change. Cause we would continue to ask people to do it. They don’t understand the challenges, so create, build it and do it. And so, we wouldn’t be here without you Theo.


Theo: Appreciate it. And of course, likewise — techPlug has been an instrumental in helping SynsorMed with marking efforts and things of that nature and connections. So, this is a win-win, you know, definitely. 


Kornelius, is there any way anyone can reach you if they want to follow-up or have questions about techPlug or just what you’re doing there in New Orleans?


Kornelius: Yeah. Yeah, sure. Our website is and there you have it. Click on a little icon if you want to reach out to us and learn more about what we’re doing. I’m on Instagram, but that’s probably not the best place — you could look at me on LinkedIn and just my name, Kornelius Bankston, that is a good way to reach me, as well.


Theo: Awesome –Great! Well, Kornelius, thank you so much. This has been a great interview and time with you, as well.


To learn more about how SynsorMed can help with your CCM, RPM  RTM and Virtual Care options please reach us at



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