Since the start of the pandemic, a growing majority of patients have participated in telehealth for the first time. Having experienced the benefits of telehealth, research shows patients are willing to change providers to continue telehealth. According to a McKinsey & Company study, 76% of consumers are interested in using telehealth moving forward, compared to only 11% in 2019. This represents a significant paradigm shift for the wider healthcare sector. As patients vote with their feet by moving their care to providers who prioritize telehealth, the onus will fall on providers to optimize their experience by proactively removing barriers to inclusive care.
One of the key benefits of telehealth is providing a more inclusive experience by removing obstacles to care, such as transportation, limited availability, and access to culturally competent care. It also allows patients to receive care from the comfort of their homes, easing anxiety about doctor visits. Critically, video interaction helps doctors assess who needs to be seen quickly for health issues, improving overall quality of care and patient experience.
While there are many benefits to telehealth, new technology also introduces new challenges. Two of the biggest barriers in making telehealth an inclusive experience are patients with limited digital literacy, such as elderly populations, and those encountering digital exclusion, such as those in rural areas who do not have access to broadband connections. To spearhead implementation, healthcare providers must commit to tackling these newly introduced barriers. Inclusivity is not as simple as making everyone feel welcome; it’s a commitment to making healthcare outcomes more equitable.
Digital literacy is a major obstacle in telehealth efficacy. Research has found that “at least 1 in every 4 Americans may not have digital literacy skills or access to Internet-enabled digital devices to engage in video visits.” Gaps in digital literacy result in inequitable outcomes in telehealth. Among adults aged 65 or older, research shows that “only 60% are able to send an email, fill out a form, and find a website.” These challenges are significant because it means that people who benefit from telehealth the most, like the elderly or underserved groups, could be experiencing the largest disadvantage in outcomes.
Another major barrier in achieving inclusive telehealth is the digital divide of internet quality. 13 percent of the population are without a high-speed internet connection. Moreover, among households with incomes less than $30,000, “more than 40 percent do not have access to a computer or high-speed internet—all of which are essential to virtual health care visits.” Without proper infrastructure, the clinical benefits of telehealth cannot be realized. Bridging the digital divide is paramount for telehealth inclusivity, and a number of strategies targeted at enhancing digital literacy and improving internet access should be utilized.
In order for telehealth to work, it has to work for everyone. Providers “need to be proactive about how they use different types of telemedicine platforms and measure how well patients are able to use them.” This means mitigating digital barriers by teaching patients how to use their resources, and testing which solutions work best. As with any other aspect of patient care, providers must be constantly exploring improvements in accessing digital care. A Journal of General Internal Medicine study revealed that “broadband access has become a social determinant of health.” To prevent disparities in telehealth outcomes, changes are needed to ensure equitable access, such as helping patients obtain devices that provide broadband access.
Continuud is committed to improving digital health equity. That’s why we launched our telehealth access platform in April of 2020. Our mission is to “improve access to quality care for under-resourced communities through implementation of innovative digital platforms.” That means using technology to break down barriers to care, both online and offline. If you’re interested in learning more about how our telehealth access platform can help you address four of your patient’s most common barriers to telehealth, connect with our team for a free digital strategy session.