Telemedicine is booming — but Roberts says many still face huge barriers to virtual care


STAT - “The temporary reform due to Covid allowed telemedicine visits from a patient’s home, but it presumed that patients had access to the technology to engage in those visits,” said Eric Roberts of the University of Pittsburgh Department of Health Policy and Management and a co-author of one of the papers. “We’re showing that there’s a substantial number of Medicare beneficiaries who lack access to that technology.”

The paper, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, found that 1 in 4 Medicare beneficiaries were stranded on the far side of the digital divide in 2018, with neither a home computer with a high-speed internet connection or a smartphone with a wireless plan. That translates to 15 million people in the U.S. who, if they wanted to, wouldn’t be equipped to make the leap from in-person to video visits. The study found that this technology gap disproportionately impacts people of color, low-income individuals, and senior citizens — altogether, “a very vulnerable population both in terms of their health profile and their economic profile,” Roberts said.

One way to potentially narrow that gap, according to the authors: expand the federal Lifeline program, which subsidizes phone and internet services for impoverished families, to cover more low-income Medicare beneficiaries. They cautioned, however, that the program is limited and does not pay for devices themselves. Yet another problem is that people who can afford devices aren’t always able to use them.

“It actually bears emphasizing that simply putting an iPhone in someone’s hand or a laptop in someone’s hand does not necessarily imply the ability to receive a telemedicine visit,” Roberts said. The technology itself has to also be accessible to the patients who need to use it.

“Covid has probably ushered in a new normal, where telemedicine is going to be an increasingly prominent component of health care delivery,” Roberts said. “This [disparity] is certainly not a problem that can be conquered overnight, but one that will require sustained and diligent efforts, given the likely sustained impact that Covid will have on how we deliver care.”

Read full story in StatNews HealthTech, "Telemedicine is booming — but many people still face huge barriers to virtual care," by  JULIET ISSELBACHER, August 5, 2020


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