We Must Bridge The Digital Divide In Health Care

posted by AHIP

on March 22, 2021

Health insurance providers help meet the technology needs of rural and underserved communities.

The need to stay safe during the COVID-19 crisis did not begin the digital transformation of health care, but it did accelerate adoption out of necessity. It also highlighted known social factors and inequities. According to the AHIP brief, Bridging the Digital Divide, “Vulnerable populations may have reduced or lost income and dropped their internet or data plans to save money, turned off smartphones they can no longer afford, and lost access to publicly available Wi-Fi with the closing of schools and libraries.”

For years, health insurance and health care providers have been developing and adopting new technologies to improve patient education, care, and health outcomes. Electronic medical records have smoothed and sped information exchange among providers, while reducing opportunities for miscommunication. Telehealth enables patients to receive some care without leaving home. And apps and websites make education, information, and even care available asynchronously—when and where it’s convenient for the patient.

These are all positive developments that can make it easier and more affordable for many to access high-quality care. But where does that leave people without digital fluency or reliable connectivity and devices?

Local and state leaders are working to get available COVID-19 vaccines “into arms” as quickly as possible, prioritizing people most at risk from the virus. But many seniors who are eligible to receive the shots find themselves struggling with online portals to sign up for a limited number of available appointments.

In January 2021, Older Adults Technology Services (OATS) and the Humana Foundation issued a report that identified “disturbing correlations between digital disengagement and race, disability, health status, educational attainment, immigration, rural residence, and, of course, income.” Now, through Aging Connected, the organizations are working together to help seniors get broadband connectivity.

Addressing Digital Literacy and Access for Seniors

“Talking via video platforms like Zoom and taking photos with a smart phone may be familiar to some seniors, but not to all,” says Jill Selby, SCAN SVP of Product Development and Market Expansion,. “During the pandemic, in-person visits to physicians have largely been replaced by telehealth visits. Recognizing that many of our members lack ‘digital fluency’ for various reasons, SCAN developed HEALTHtech, a designated tech support line staffed with live experts.”

Launched for all SCAN members in 2021, the HEALTHtech support benefit provides 1:1 technical assistance over the phone to members, and can help them set up an email account, learn to use telehealth platforms, Zoom, FaceTime, and more, and is provided at no additional charge. SCAN is promoting the service widely, including via print newsletters and direct referrals to the helpline when members call Member Services for assistance.

As noted in The Digital Divide, telehealth claims increased over 8,000% in April 2020 compared to April 2019. The demand for telehealth services is growing because it is an effective and efficient way to receive care, and so America’s health insurance providers are working to ensure access for the people they serve, regardless of where they live or their economic situation.

  • Centene is providing smartphones and tablets to patients and providers in rural and underserved communities to expand virtual care capabilities where needed.
  • CareOregonis supplying phones and data plans to some members so they can access virtual care when they need it.
  • Blue Shield of California Promise Health Plan and L.A. Care opened “telehealth hubs” in their community resource centers, so members without connectivity could access virtual care in a private setting.

As the COVID-19 crisis disrupted lives and livelihoods, it also exacerbated disparities in access to care for vulnerable populations. We all continue to adapt to a socially distant world, find new ways to access goods and services, and learn to work and socialize remotely, and we need to continue working to ensure no one is left behind.

" "