Over the last several months, we’ve explored the importance of addressing the social determinants of health in order to advance health equity. Social determinants are the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age, and they play a large role in determining health status and disparities. For instance, things like income, access to transportation, and childcare availability affect patients’ ability to receive care in-person. This is why telehealth is an important tool for expanding access to care and reducing health inequities—it removes many of the barriers to seeing a doctor.

For example, telehealth reduces one of the biggest barriers to accessing healthcare: cost. In 2017, a Health Affairs survey found that telehealth appointments were around 50% less expensive than in-person appointments. This doesn’t factor in the cost of gas and parking (if one drives) or public transport (if one needs it). It also doesn’t factor in the cost of childcare (if needed), or lost wages (assuming the patient needed to take time out of work to go see the doctor).

Cost is not the only socio-economic barrier to in-person healthcare. A number of social determinants come into play when talking about access, and they interact with each other in complex ways. For instance, the rise in telehealth during the pandemic has brought into focus another social determinant: access to broadband. Without stable internet telehealth becomes unreachable, and detrimentally so for the patients who would benefit from it the most.

This reality brings the digital divide into a harsh light. In a new, heavily-connected world, are efforts towards health equity actually hitting their mark?

The healthcare industry is rapidly embracing the internet as a care delivery platform. Telehealth is booming, and odds are it will continue to do so even beyond COVID. But the digital divide shows that it’s not enough to provide telehealth, if the people who would benefit from it the most cannot use it. The divide is deserving of a high level of consideration and intervention. By adequately addressing it, providers will realize significant advances in health equity.

Read the full article about health equity by Jessica Plante at Christensen Institute.