Several factors, such as income disparity, racial inequity, and education inequality have long been obstacles to our goal of achieving healthcare equity in the United States.
As the use of telehealth exploded during the height of the pandemic, it seemed to break down barriers to healthcare. For insta
nce, the ability to connect with your healthcare provider virtually removed the need for many people to commute to their doctor. Especially for people with physical disabilities, this proved to be a boon.
However, even as telehealth helped millions of people access necessary healthcare, it also highlighted even more that digital equity is a precondition for healthcare equity.
The Undeniable Link Between Healthcare Equity and Digital Equity
One of the prerequisites for accessing telehealth is the need to have an Internet-enabled device and a reliable Internet connection. However, according to the Federal Communications Commission, approximately 19 million Americans live without access to fixed broadband Internet. Healthcare publication, Fierce Healthcare, shared a study conducted by the Annals of Internal Medicine. This study found that less than 40% of the people who live more than a 70-minute drive from a primary care physician subscribe to an Internet connection capable of handling telehealth services.
Two of the biggest constraints to people not being able to connect to the Internet are accessibility and affordability.
Telehealth’s Promise of Healthcare Equity
Telehealth is one of the most promising ways to achieve healthcare equity. A few ways we have seen telehealth make an impact are:
Access to Telehealth Helps People Dealing With Chronic Conditions: By nature, chronic diseases need people to meet with their healthcare providers frequently. Telehealth makes it easy for patients and doctors to monitor chronic conditions and keep track of symptoms and vital signs without having to make routine trips to the doctor’s office.
Telehealth Helps Reduce Healthcare Costs: Emergency room visits can cost a good chunk of money. When patients are able to quickly get in touch with their doctors or a home triage service, they are more likely to receive the medical attention they need without having to admit themselves in emergency rooms. This also reduces the pressure on emergency rooms themselves. In addition to reducing costs incurred in urgent care, telehealth also reduces the cost burden of commuting to a doctor’s office.
Telehealth Enables Collaboration: Telehealth’s ability to deliver healthcare equity also comes in the form of collaboration potential. When doctors around the world can easily connect with each other and a patient, the chances of individuals receiving specialized and expert care increase exponentially.
Ensure Healthcare Equity by Ensuring Digital Equity
Telehealth has immense potential to bring us closer to our goal of achieving healthcare equity. However, it also runs the risk of unintended consequences. That of widening health disparities. As doctors become more comfortable delivering healthcare via the Internet, how can we ensure that telehealth doesn’t leave large chunks of the U.S. population — those without easy access to the Internet — behind?
Providing Low-Cost, Reliable Internet: As we’ve discussed above, one of the greatest impediments to telehealth is the lack of Internet access. Even though more than 85% of U.S. adults own a smartphone, a large number of people haven’t been able to take advantage of telehealth. Inaccessibility to low-cost, reliable Internet is a major factor that contributes to this. Public and private partnerships and various organizations, including Mobile Citizen, offer low-cost Internet services that can be leveraged to ensure everyone in the U.S. has access to the Internet.
Provide Tech Training: While access to the Internet is one of the most important aspects of the digital divide, an inability to navigate the Internet is also a big part of it. Especially among older adults, who also tend to need the doctor more often, an unfamiliarity with connecting to different apps and services and navigating technology, in general, can seem like an insurmountable challenge. Many nonprofit organizations and entities such as libraries help individuals decode technology that can make it easier for them to access telehealth.
Telehealth and the Potential of Technology
As in many fields such as education and employment, technology has opened new avenues for people. Increased access to telehealth means more people can access mental healthcare, patients can rely on expert medical advice irrespective of their geography, and asynchronous visits and care have become a norm making it much easier for those with packed schedules to still access care.
It is important, however, to not let the ease and convenience of telehealth blind us. Instead, we should be even more aware of how we run the risk of leaving many Americans behind. The good news? This is a risk we are aware of and so a risk we can be prepared for.
Reducing barriers to equal Internet access is one of the most important steps policymakers and public and private organizations can take to ensure that telehealth benefits everyone.
At Mobile Citizen, we partner with telehealth service-related nonprofits to provide low-cost, reliable mobile Internet devices and hotspots. These can be used by organizations to not only help deliver essential healthcare to individuals, but also to help their patients stay connected with their friends, families, and communities, which is also an essential part of well-being. To explore opportunities for your organization, please contact our experts in the Mobile Citizen Customer Service Center at 877-216-9603.