Extending telehealth across the digital divide improves health outcomes, particularly for at-risk patients
On March 17, the federal government removed restrictions on the use of telehealth, paving the way for virtual care to become an accepted (and covered) alternative to in-person medical visits, to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 infections. While this initiative is laudable, it exposes the unfortunate reality that a significant portion of the most at-risk Americans lack the means to effectively access telehealth. In fact, according to a study, 67% of low-income households lack broadband connectivity at home, and rely on wireless-only service for their broadband connectivity needs. This wireless connectivity is often accessed in the form of prepaid wireless service. Telehealth often relies on video communication, which consumes a lot of data. Those most at-risk lack the means to pay for this data; even without telehealth, they often run out of data in the middle of the month, and sometimes have to forego paying for groceries to pay for wireless service. Furthermore, the mobile devices they use tend to be older and ill-suited for two-way video communication.
In effect, a well-intentioned initiative has the unfortunate side effect of exposing the extent of the digital divide in healthcare and brought to light the importance of bridging this last mile gap to insure ubiquitous delivery of telehealth.
The government, and a number of other organizations both public and private have stepped in to bridge this gap. For example, the FCC undefined recently allocated $200 million to enable health care providers to extend telehealth to the under-connected, at-risk population; to date, about 25% of this funding has been allocated to deserving organizations. This funding is typically used to provide the telehealth devices and connectivity to the patients who are currently under-connected. The FCC continues to encourage healthcare providers to apply. Furthermore, other government agencies (federal, state and local), as well as private foundations are making grants available to close the gap.
Covid-19 is a watershed moment for telehealth regulation and reimbursement with profound and transformative effects on care delivery. The long-term success of telehealth hinges on it being accessible to all Americans. Now is the time to bridge the last mile gap.
To learn about how the Sano Health solution is enabling under-connected Americans access telehealth:
For more information about the FCC grant: https://www.fcc.gov/covid-19-telehealth-program