More telehealth in the pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic caused an increase in the use of technologies for remote health care; this is called telehealth. For example, this includes greater use of telephone and text messaging, email, and remote video consultations with the patient at home. However, we know that older people and those from racial and ethnic minorities often lack access to technology required for telehealth. Also, reliable internet access may be unaffordable at home. In fact, 15% – 20% of Americans (and a higher percentage of young adults) are “smartphone dependent.” This means that they rely on their phones for internet because they do not have other internet access at home.
Access and use of telehealth is uneven
Researchers from California recently looked at the use of telehealth for diabetes care. They found that older adults, patients with public insurance such as Medicare, and those with a primary language other than English were less likely to use telehealth for diabetes care during the shelter-in-place order. However, patients’ race/ethnicity, sex, rural/urban status, and household income were not strongly linked to telehealth use during the pandemic.
Avoiding disparities created by telehealth
If patients in these high-risk groups do not access care via telehealth, then their other options would be to delay recommended visits, receive limited care by phone, or seek in-person care which would include attending urgent care. The first two options do not meet the recommendations for diabetes management. The last option increases the risk of getting COVID-19 among diabetes patients who are already at a greater risk. More work must be done to ensure that telehealth services do not cause or worsen health disparities.