Shift to Telehealth Restricts Options for Patients Without Internet Access

Telehealth use has surged due to the coronavirus pandemic as doctors move away from in-person appointments toward videoconferencing and other technologies. However, many patients lack the necessary internet infrastructure to make the switch to virtual care.

According to Pew Research Center data, only 63% of rural Americans have home broadband subscriptions. More than 157 million people in the U.S. only have access to substandard internet speeds, and about half of low-income Americans reported concerns about being able to pay their internet and smartphone bills during the pandemic.

Even prior to the crisis, patients who were unfamiliar with or lacking access to health-care technologies tended not to use online tools for services such as appointment scheduling or prescription refills.

“When you need telemedicine everywhere, you see a vulnerable population that doesn’t have the means to use it,” said Carla Harwell, MD, a physician practicing in Cleveland, Ohio. “It’s revealed these inequities and the disparities that we’ve been sweeping up under the rug.” In Cleveland, one quarter of households lack access to broadband.

Jorge Rodriguez, MD, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, suggests health-care systems begin to routinely screen for connectivity issues, especially for new patients, which is not yet standard practice.

Sources: Wired, June 8, 2020; Pew Research Center, June 12, 2019.