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Telehealth Requires Efforts to Improve Access to Reach Full Potential

Mark Melchionna

November 29, 2022

New research found that telehealth expansion lacks benefits when efforts to improve access are not present, which may often lead to health disparities.

Regions with limited healthcare resources may not benefit from telehealth expansion, prompting the need for efforts to improve access, a new JAMA Network Open study finds.

Throughout the recent expansion of telehealth, researchers continuously gained insight into new methods for reaching areas with limited amounts of healthcare resources, highlighting many areas and populations facing limited healthcare resources.

The fact and theories about the relationship between telehealth and health disparities led researchers to conduct a cross-sectional study containing 2015 to 2019 American Community Survey data which was linked to national, state, and county-level metrics of healthcare access. Prior to the study, the authors hypothesized that internet access was poor in areas that lacked sufficient access to traditional healthcare resources.

Known as healthcare deserts, communities with limited healthcare services such as pharmacies, hospitals, PCPs, and low-cost health centers were reviewed for the study. The data sources included dataQ and GoodRx databases for 60,249 pharmacies, federal information on primary care health professional shortage areas, and geospatial information.

Researchers calculated the proportion of populations with internet access and the expected number of healthcare deserts, which represented the population-weighted mean number of deserts in a given region. They also noted statistics for metropolitan status for each state.

Among 3,140 counties reviewed in the study, researchers determined that healthcare access and internet service availability corresponded with one another. They found that the states with the largest percentage of households without internet service were Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, West Virginia, and Alabama. The states with the lowest number of households without internet service and the lowest fitted number of healthcare deserts were Washington, New Hampshire, Colorado, Utah, California, and Maryland.

Rural areas were more likely to have more health deserts and less internet service availability —78 percent compared to 26 percent of urban counties.

Based on these findings, researchers concluded that telehealth expansion may not produce benefits within counties where telehealth is highly needed. Key factors that contribute to rural-urban health disparities in the US may include telehealth expansion without improving internet access as well as clinician shortages.

Despite this conclusion, researchers noted limitations, which mainly related to the lack of digital literacy data that may have increased urban-rural disparities, along with the co-occurrence of poor internet and healthcare access across six domains.

Previously, however, efforts have been made to support rural communities in obtaining telehealth resources. In September, Equum Medical worked with the National Rural Health Association to provide underserved rural communities with virtual resources. The goal of the collaboration was to assist rural hospitals as they aim to fill gaps in specialty care through tools such as of patient transfer assistance, remote patient monitoring, and help with telehealth implementation.

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