Available data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) states that telemedicine visits increased from 7,000 in 2004 to 108,000 by 2013. In the years that have followed, improved technology has greatly expanded this number, making the option for broad use of telemedicine possible by the pandemic of 2020. Now, we seek telehealth solutions to serve at-risk and underserved communities across the world.
Telehealth has the potential to reach people where they live, reducing healthcare risks and improving accessibility of care, even to populations and minority groups like the LGBTQ community, individuals with disabilities, and seniors who have traditionally been underserved or faced challenges receiving care. The trend in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic is shifting the medical industry towards telemedicine solutions, and this trend can make a difference for all these groups.
By reaching underserved communities and bringing accessibility to healthcare, telehealth can improve healthcare outcomes across the world.
Reaching Underserved Communities
Healthcare accessibility is an ongoing issue in the United States. The Department of Health and Human Services reported in 2016 that access in healthcare fell disproportionately along urban lines, leaving 9.1% of rural residents without insurance compared to the urban rate of 7.2%. Additionally, 26.5% of these uninsured rural residents said they delayed needed care due to fear of costs.
This demonstrates the inequality and need for care in previously underserved communities. Often these lines are not just drawn by region but also by other demographic factors, such as ability or sexual orientation. For example, CIGNA reports the following disparities in LGBT healthcare:
- Higher rates of chronic conditions
- Higher rates of HPV infection
- Less likely to have health insurance
- More likely to be refused service or harassed by healthcare staff
Telehealth can address these issues by providing staff and resources directed specifically for the needs of the communities they serve, be they LGBT, aging, or any other underserved group. The specification of services and the ability to reach out within a national or even global network have the potential to direct care to those in need, better diagnose issues, and more effectively craft treatment plans. These services can even be accessed on a smartphone.
Telehealth can create a safe space from pandemics and discrimination, providing much-needed solutions in the current environment. With online, accessible spaces designated specifically to underserved communities, healthcare solutions to a wide variety of issues can be navigated and addressed. In rural neighborhoods, for instance, telehealth can expand to everything from pandemic care to addiction treatment services, reaching long-underserved demographics with the help they need.
Bringing Accessibility to Healthcare
In a world during and after COVID-19, digital healthcare can offer screenings, triage appointments, and follow-ups, as well as digital apps for reporting vitals and other care information that can help providers provide care regardless of location or demographic.
These services make for a broadly more accessible future for care for underserved communities without compromising security and safety. Telehealth can enable social distancing while removing the cost of travel for rural patients.
Additionally, providers can protect patient data even within telehealth systems through technologies like blockchain, access rights monitoring, and much more. The ease and accessibility offered by this tech provide a safe atmosphere for anyone to receive care where they are. They can even provide secure and legal electronic signatures, removing the need to drive hundreds of miles or put themselves at risk to jump through bureaucratic loopholes.
Improving the Potential of Healthcare Outcomes
By removing the need for travel and exposure, telehealth can serve communities that would otherwise not receive care — especially in pandemic conditions. Additionally, the democratized and specific spaces these services can offer enable treatment directly focused on marginalized groups to provide better health outcomes.
Though the coronavirus has been a largely negative experience for everyone, the shift it has created towards telehealth can grow to assist underserved communities. First, there are issues of access to the internet and technology to make these solutions possible, especially in rural communities, but a future of innovative telehealth services has great potential in a more equitable future of care outcomes.