Telehealth’s Tech Gap

Despite the widespread push for telehealth adoption, Black patients report having less telehealth visits than White patients, largely due to a lack of internet access.

Bar graph depicting telehealth survey results, broken down by race

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As the pandemic took hold of daily life in 2020, telehealth technology rapidly moved from a fledgling option to a necessity. Four years later, patients and their providers are still struggling to adapt to changes in technology despite the widespread push for telehealth adoption. Many of these challenges are rooted in racial disparities.

A recent study conducted by John A. Iasiello and colleagues looked into the persistent patient barriers in access to telehealth technology, highlighting its effects on historically marginalized communities. The study team analyzed data from Vidant Cancer Center (a regional cancer center in eastern South Carolina) between March 2020 and April 2022. They also conducted surveys with patients during clinic visits to collect qualitative data.

The investigators showed a significant gap in telehealth utilization between Black and White patients. Black patients, according to survey responses, had a significantly smaller number of telehealth visits compared to their White counterparts. A major factor contributing to this divide was the reported lack of internet access. As a result, Black patients also had more difficulties accessing the online patient portal, used for checking test results.

The graph above highlights the disparities in various categories of telehealth care and support, with blue bars representing Black patients and red bars representing White patients. These findings cover more concrete access to services (i.e., having a broadband connection) as well as technology competency (i.e., comfort with and knowledge of remote communication and patient portals).

Efforts to close these gaps might include initiatives that help improve internet access, education on telehealth usage and digital literacy, and a critical need to create a more inclusive and accessible health care system for all. As the digital future of health care moves forward, breaking down barriers that prevent all people from fully benefiting from telehealth limits optimal medical care and the ability to become a healthier nation.

Databyte via John A. Iasiello, Arvind Rajan, Emmanuel Zervos, Alexander A. Parikh, and Rebecca A. Snyder. Racial Differences in Patient-Reported Access to Telehealth: An Important and Unmeasured Social Determinant of Health. JCO Oncology Practice, 2023.