Once thought of as a convenience, telemedicine has recently emerged as a critical means of accessing healthcare for many people in the U.S. In 2020, the number of patients remotely receiving medical evaluation and treatment expanded dramatically as providers restricted in-person visits to maintain social distancing. While modern videoconferencing technology has increased access to healthcare for millions of Americans, marginalized and underserved communities are being left behind due to a systemic lack of access to technology or telecommunications services.
In response to the ongoing problem of remote healthcare access inequality, a collection of advocates and industry groups have formed the Telehealth Equity Coalition (TEC) in an effort to provide a data-driven review of public data on telehealth adoption in communities across the country. Their goal is to work with nonprofit, academic, and industry partners to help increase equitable access to and utilization of telemedicine services.
Many underserved groups of Americans find themselves facing barriers to accessing remote healthcare. Of those over 65 years old, only half own a smartphone and only 60% have access to broadband internet service that could support video conferencing. BIPOC communities are also impacted by a lack of broadband internet access: approximately 66% of Black homes and 61% of Latinx homes report having access to home broadband, relative to 79% of White homes. Fewer than 60% of both groups reported owning a desktop or laptop computer. Americans living in poverty are also facing serious obstacles: a recent study of 6 million U.S. households with annual incomes under $25,000 showed that 51% reported not having home internet service because it was too expensive.
Ann Mond Johnson, CEO of the American Telemedicine Association (one of the founding member organizations), explains that the TEC intends to combat the ongoing inequality by “exploring how technology and personal health can lead the way to health equity.”
To that end, the National Health IT Collaborative for the Underserved (NHIT) pledges to offer coalition members access to its Data Fusion Center, an endeavor to assess and measure important indicators of access and use of telehealth. By leveraging public data on telehealth access and use, the member organizations will be better positioned to drive their own policy initiatives toward improving health outcomes for the most vulnerable of Americans.