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Health Care Disparities and Access to Video Visits Before and After the COVID-19 Pandemic: Findings from a Patient Survey in Primary Care

Emily C. Webber, Brock D. McMillen, and Deanna R. Willis

May 11, 2022

Background:In 2020, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services reimbursement structure was relaxed to aid in the rapid adoption nationally of telemedicine during the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to limited access to internet service, cellular phone data, and appropriate devices, many patients may be excluded from telemedicine services.

Methods:In this study, we present the findings of a survey of patients at an urban primary care clinic regarding their access to the tools needed for telemedicine before and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Patients provided information about their access to internet services, phone and data plans, and their perceived access to and interest in telemedicine. The survey was conducted in 2019 and then again in September of 2020 after expansion of telemedicine services.

Results:In 2019, 168 patients were surveyed; and in 2020, 99 patients participated. In both surveys, 30% of respondents had limited phone data, no data, or no phone at all. In 2019, the patient responses showed a statistically significant difference in phone plan types between patients with different insurance plans (p < 0.10), with a higher proportion (39%) of patients with Medicaid or Medicaid waiver having a prepaid phone or no phone at all compared with patients with commercial insurance (26%). The overall awareness rate increased from 17% to 43% in the 2020 survey.

Conclusions:This survey illustrated that not all patients had access to devices, cellular data, and internet service, which are all needed to conduct telemedicine. In this survey, patients with Medicaid or Medicaid waiver insurance were less likely to have these tools than those with a commercial payor. Finally, patients' access to these telemedicine tools correlated with their interest in using telemedicine visits. Providing equitable telemedicine care requires attention to and mitigation strategies for these gaps in access.

Telemedicine and virtual care expanded rapidly during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. Fueled by necessity among health care providers and systems to deliver patient care, adoption was also driven by removal of barriers and expanded Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) reimbursement models. In March 2020, CMS authorized Medicare beneficiaries to receive telehealth at any location, including their homes.1 Subsequent waivers increased the scope of Medicare telehealth services, including a wider array of practitioners. Finally, the Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights announced that it would waive penalties for Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) violations against health care providers who were using everyday communication technologies to provide telehealth services.2 These combined changes resulted in millions of additional telehealth visits. CMS data from March and June of 2020 showed an increase from 13,000 beneficiaries using telehealth before the public health emergency to 1.7 million in the last week of April 2020.3 These CMS expansions were made permanent in January 2021.4

Despite these expansions, not all patients are positioned to take advantage of the adoption of telemedicine and virtual care. The digital divide or lack of access to reliable high-speed internet is a well-described gap, made worse in 2020, as many entities turned to virtual solutions to work, study, and conduct business as usual. Nearly 42 million people in the United States may not have the ability to purchase broadband internet as of February 2020,5 disproportionately impacting communities of color as well as low socioeconomic status.6 Finally, according to BroadbandNow, an estimated 1.35 million (20%) residents in Indiana are unserved by broadband internet providers at their home address.7 At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, precautions such as stay-at-home orders and business, municipal, and school shutdowns eliminated public options for internet access.

Addressing these gaps is a critical step in preventing worsening inequities in access to care.8 In this study, we surveyed patients in an urban primary care clinic to determine their access to internet and devices, readiness, and barriers to utilizing telemedicine and virtual health care.

In August 2019, patients from a primary care clinic located in central Indianapolis, Indiana, participated in a 10-question quality improvement survey. The Institutional Review Board reviewed and determined the survey to be exempt. Each patient arriving at the clinic over a 2-day period was given the chance to participate. The paper survey included questions about home internet and device access, phone plan and phone data adequacy, and interest in virtual visits (see Supplementary Data for full survey). The patient's insurance coverage information was captured on the paper survey form by the staff before handing the form to the patient.

The results were assessed using chi-square tests to determine differences between payor groups. A linear regression model was utilized to analyze the association of phone plan data adequacy with interest in video visits.

Following the results of the first survey, efforts to improve adoption of virtual visits were undertaken, including office signage promoting virtual visits, offering a virtual visit follow-up at checkout, visual cues to prompt providers to schedule virtual follow-ups, and scripting for appointment schedulers to include offering virtual visits at the time of scheduling.

In September 2020, the same quality improvement survey was repeated from the same clinic during an active time period of COVID-19 to see if additional quality improvement efforts were warranted. One additional question was added to the 2020 survey: “How has your ability to do a video visit changed since the onset of COVID-19?” The results were assessed using chi-square tests between payor groups. A linear regression model was utilized to analyze the association of phone plan data adequacy with interest in video visits. Scheduled appointments were tracked weekly by type and audited for completion throughout the study period. Video visits that could not be completed using video were converted to telephone visits and counted as telephone visits.

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Published Online:11 May 2022

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