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Can Telehealth Help Reduce Health Care Disparities?

telehealth disparities

Experts came together at the 2021 consumer electronics show to plan on how technology especially telehealth may help reduce disparities and provide a path toward equal healthcare for all.

Experts came together at the 2021 consumer electronics show to plan on how technology especially telehealth may help reduce disparities and provide a path toward equal healthcare for all.

According to an article published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in July 2020, they recognized that disparities in social determinants of telehealth care access affect members of minority groups.

It was stated in the article that barriers must be removed so that everyone can have a fair opportunity to be as healthy as possible.

To discuss and provide a lasting solution to this issue, the CES 2021, which was held virtually, brought together health technology experts. Their focus was on using technology as a tool to break the barriers that had caused inequality in the area of healthcare access.

An infectious-disease physician and the former medical director of Washington, Lisa Fitzpatrick, founded Grapevine Health to improve health literacy and patient engagement in minority groups. This organization helps health systems, researchers, and medical providers in building community outreach and engagement through the use of smartphones and computer technology.

Katherine Ryder, the founder, and CEO of Maven Clinic heads a digital health company that provides virtual care and services in the areas of fertility, pediatrics, and maternity.

The Maven Clinic tops the nation’s largest women’s and family health telehealth network, working hand in hand with one thousand seven hundred healthcare providers and millions of families across the country. They connect patients with obstetrician-gynecologists, nutritionists, lactation consultants, and other specialists through video chat or messaging and assist women in standing up for themselves. Ryder stated that Maven aims to bring health equity through telemedicine and plans to soon launch a product for women enrolled in Medicaid.

Founder and chief innovator at Parity Health Information & Technology, Iris Frye leads a company determined to improve healthcare delivery for minority and vulnerable communities by forming better relationships between them and healthcare providers. One of the Parity’s plans is the development of telehealth and remote patient monitoring systems.

Health professionals can educate themselves about racism, as a major step toward enabling better relationships with communities that are underprivileged.

Ryder said that better relationships can build trust, which is a major factor because distrust in healthcare has contributed to poorer results among racial and ethnic minorities.

To support this claim, Frye said health practitioners must spend time in the community to develop trust. She continued that there’s no shortcut to building trust other than to get on the ground and talk to people.

“Don’t look through us, but see us,” Frye says. “You just can’t expect us to come into your office, spend five minutes with us, and walk away. You haven’t listened to us. You haven’t talked to us”.

“If you haven’t allowed me to have a voice, then how am I supposed to trust that you have my best interests at heart? See the person that sits in front of you; see them as a whole instead of as a number.”

Enlightening Health Practitioners About Racism

In their discussions during the conference session, titled “How Tech Can Reduce Health Disparities,” each of the health technology leaders explained the gap between healthcare providers and underserved communities.

“We noticed that providers do not have the knowledge to deal with patients in underserved Black and brown communities,” said Frye. “They’re at a loss.”

From Frye’s point of view, improving health equity begins with education, and real change starts by talking about issues like racism.

Frye said that providers need to be informed about systemic racism and dealing with things like unconscious bias. “A lot of people don’t believe that it truly exists. Once the issue is in the open, then we can start building from there.”

In addition to what Frye said, Fitzpatrick suggests that this education can begin during medical training. She believes that introducing medical students, pharmacy students, and nursing students to topics like systemic racism, may help make conversations about these topics less uncomfortable and easy.

“I think it takes a little bit of courage and a willingness to take a risk,” said Fitzpatrick.

Telemedicine Can Be a Major Breakthrough

Understandably, healthcare providers may not always have the time and resources to be physically in a community as much as they would like. But with telemedicine, they can assist communities virtually. Ryder believes that telemedicine can help build trust and connection by allowing more interaction between healthcare providers and communities.

Ryder says that when Black patients are working with Black providers, they do get better results. Unfortunately, research published in 2016 in Obstetrics and Gynecology found, however, that only 11 percent of ob-gyns are Black.

“I think telemedicine plays a really important role in delivering against that limited access,” she said. Telemedicine makes it easier for the small number of Black ob-gyns to reach a large number of people at once.

According to Frye, some populations can receive virtual care over in-person care than others. Usually, young people are more comfortable with technology, and virtual care may fit more conveniently into their busy schedules. Besides, telemedicine can reduce or eliminate the anxiety and concerns some patients may have about seeing a medical practitioner.

For instance, mental health has such astigmatism when it comes to the Black and brown community, according to Frye. By not having to come in contact with a health professional, some patients feel more relaxed and comfortable sharing their feelings and what’s going on in their lives and with their health.

“I’ve spoken with so many mental health providers who stated that telehealth has exploded their business when it comes to the minority community,” she said.

Lower-Income Americans Still Lack Access To Health Technology

Developing this stronger virtual link depends on underserved communities having the technological tools to take advantage of telemedicine.

Sadly, at least 3 out of 10 adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year don’t own a smartphone, according to a May 2019 report from the Pew Research Center. More than 4 out of 10 don’t have home broadband services or a traditional computer. Also, a majority of lower-income Americans are not tablet owners.

Surprisingly, Fitzpatrick has found that more Medicaid patients she has seen have smartphones than the Pew survey indicates. This implies that even though they don’t have broadband access, they can engage in a televisit.

The panelists all concluded that underprivileged communities still don’t have as much access to broadband and other technologies as they should help enhance the delivery of telemedicine.

According to Ryder, this problem needs to be solved to build patient engagement.

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