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Studies Show How Telehealth Can Increase Equitable Access to Care

Center for Connected Health Policy

May 24, 2022

Focus on the relationship between telehealth and disparities in access to care continues to result in new research examining pandemic era data and the use of telehealth among disadvantaged populations. While policymakers and studies often try to put findings into two groups, whether telehealth increases or decreases inequities, recent research shows that the study framework used and considerations made may impact outcomes more so than telehealth itself. For instance, this month a new study published in Health Affairs found that as a result of emergency federal telemedicine coverage expansions access increased for all Medicare populations, including those in the most disadvantaged areas.

The study was framed to examine the impact of expanded telehealth coverage policies on different populations, rather than looking at access generally where inequities have unfortunately always existed. Comparing pre-COVID temporary waiver data with post-waiver implementation data, the authors discovered that the highest odds of utilization were among those in disadvantaged and metropolitan areas. As reported in a Managed Healthcare Executive article on the study, the Johns Hopkins researchers concluded that the results suggest that increased Medicare telemedicine coverage policies improve access to underserved populations without worsening disparities.

An additional study just published in Telemedicine Journal and e-Health and covered in a healthleaders article showed that a virtual care program at Penn Medicine is reducing barriers to access specifically for Black patients and eliminating historic disparities. The authors looked at approximately one million appointments per year in both 2019 and 2020 for Philadelphia area patients and found that Black patients used telehealth more than non-Black patients and that appointment completion gaps between Black and non-Black patients closed.

Also recently released, the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA) produced a white paper titled The Future of Telehealth Roundtable: The Potential Impact of Emerging Technologies on Health Equity, which focuses on how to ensure telehealth increases equitable access to care. Following up on its previous pandemic telehealth work, in late 2021 NCQA pulled together a multidisciplinary panel of equity and technology experts for a discussion on equitable access and virtual health care delivery. Reviewing hypothetical case studies and responding to various questions, participants highlighted potential challenges and identified three primary ways to ensure equitable access in telehealth delivery:
Tailoring Telehealth Use and Access to Individual Preferences and Needs
Addressing Regulatory, Policy and Infrastructure Barriers to Fair Telehealth Access
Leveraging Telehealth and Digital Technologies to Promote Equitable Care Delivery
The white paper suggests the need to prioritize language and cultural humility, address digital literacy, and optimize telehealth for people with disabilities. In addition, in terms of barriers, the authors stress the need to address broadband infrastructure and licensure limitations, while also updating laws and regulations that restrict telehealth use, including payment policies.

Another Health Affairs article published this month, Policy Considerations to Ensure Telemedicine Equity, also looked at various factors that must be taken into account to allow telehealth to increase equitable access to care. The author clarifies that equity is a matter beyond telehealth and is related to patient-level barriers that include family, community, and general health care delivery level factors, such as issues related to the digital divide. In addition, the article cautions against policies focusing on increased utilization concerns, stating that increased use may mean that patients are finally attaining the care they need, in addition to the fact that increased access may reduce overall health care costs. Therefore, policies seeking to reduce reimbursement or limit audio-only modalities to address utilization and cost concerns may instead primarily reduce clinicians’ willingness to offer telehealth and modalities that mitigate access barriers for historically excluded groups. The article also highlights how varying payer policies, such as those that allow reimbursement for telehealth visits with new patients versus those that do not, creates inequities, and that differing medical licensing and/or prescribing regulations by state can create inequitable access issues on top of differing coverage policies. These policy considerations are key to ensuring telemedicine mitigates inequities rather than exacerbates them.

While the pandemic generally has highlighted and exacerbated existing inequities, it has also provided the information necessary to show telehealth’s ability to address disparities and increase equitable access to care. It is important that policymakers take such findings and opportunities from studies on telehealth equity into account when looking to potentially make pandemic policies permanent in order to properly preserve telehealth’s positive impacts. It is also important that the framework used in the study be placed in context to help explain why some research speaks to telehealth disparities, or health care disparities, versus how telehealth is decreasing health care disparities. As shown in the aforementioned studies and articles, the difference in framing showcases that telehealth in and of itself does not create or exacerbate disparities, rather it is a tool that can be utilized to decrease disparities in access to care. The tool has to be allowed to be effective, however, and that is where the role of public policy comes in. Policies must support broadband and telehealth infrastructure and promote the use of technology to deliver care equal to the delivery of in-person care. For instance, Medicaid policies that limit when telehealth can be used and/or certain allowable modalities can create inequities in comparison to more expansive commercial policies that guarantee better telehealth access to non-Medicaid patients. Therefore, policymakers must recognize that regulatory restrictions around telehealth cannot prevent already existing general access disparities, rather it is often the regulatory restrictions around telehealth that lead to exacerbating disparities. It becomes vital that research be put into context so that subsequent policies are implemented that allow telehealth to reach its full potential to reduce disparities.

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