By: April Mims, VP of Public Policy at Hims & Hers
The global pandemic has ushered in a telehealth boom, with telehealth insurance claims rising 8,336% between April 2019 and April 2020. Without question, telehealth is now a lifeline for millions of Americans who want to stay safe and avoid exposure to COVID-19 during an in-person doctor’s visit. But who has the opportunity to utilize telehealth, and, more importantly, who is being left out?
A recent study published in the Journal of American Medical Informatics Association (JAMIA) sheds light on this question and addresses the health disparities that we are all too familiar with in our healthcare system. The study of Mount Sinai patients during the height of the COVID-19 outbreak in NYC found that Black and Latino patients had lower odds of using telehealth versus either the ER or an office visit than either Whites or Asians – this remained true even after adjusting for age, comorbidities and preferred language.
Disparities in digital access, digital literacy, and telehealth awareness and education were all cited as potential reasons for the racial disparities in telehealth adoption. Notably, the authors acknowledge that these “racial differences in telehealth use should be interpreted within the context of persistent structural racism in the US.”
At Hims & Hers, a telehealth company whose mission is to break down barriers when it comes to accessibility and obtaining quality health and wellness care, we know that we cannot stand by idly as important segments of our community (people of color, the elderly, rural Americans, etc.) are deprived of the extraordinary benefits of telehealth. Benefits that include access to quality providers nationwide, zero transportation hassles, affordability and convenience.
We humbly offer the following advice to our fellow telehealth companies to promote digital inclusion, and welcome feedback from members of the Next Century Cities community for how to more fully contribute to the digital inclusion movement:
- Join the Digital Inclusion Movement and Listen: The digital divide is at the heart of telehealth adoption disparities in America. Community-based organizations, like the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, Connect 313, and, of course, Next Century Cities, are convening stakeholders who are in the trenches building infrastructure, educating and advocating on behalf of communities who are digitally excluded. Companies can join these organizations, contribute financial and human resources and, most importantly, listen to their feedback on how companies can best partner.
- Expend Resources to Address Structural Racism: As the JAMIA study noted, we cannot address the telehealth divide without addressing “persistent structural racism.” We join thousands of companies across the planet who have condemned systemic racism, and we offer the following feedback to elevate your allyship: Reach out to local, state or federal Black/Latino/Minority/Rural Legislative Caucuses to see how you can lend your government affairs and communication resources to advocate for antiracism policy, like the California Legislative Black Caucus-endorsed, “Right to decent and affordable housing” bill (AB 2405) or the “C.R.I.S.I.S. Act” (AB 2054), which allocates local and state resources for community-driven emergency responses.
- Explore Ways to Mitigate Digital Barriers: As a telehealth company, Hims & Hers relies on the internet to bridge our customers with licensed providers. However, there are ways to connect providers and customers that require more limited broadband (and thus, could mitigate digital barriers). For example, where states have permitted, our providers utilize asynchronous or “store-and-forward” modality to e-visit with customers. This dynamic online consultation model requires less high-speed broadband than is needed to conduct a real time, “synchronous” audiovisual telehealth visit. As an industry, we should explore other ways to provide the highest standards of care while addressing the digital divide crisis in our country.
To fully deliver on the promise of telehealth, we need to listen to digital community organizers, partner activity, and audit our business practices. We look forward to doing our small part to contribute to what Next Century Cities defines as “the fight for fast, affordable and reliable broadband access for all.”