Although there has been a noticeable increase in telehealth use during the global pandemic, broadband coverage has only increased by around 10%.
The lack of access to high-speed Internet service among vulnerable populations is a major factor in perpetuating the digital divide that has persisted for years. Although there has been a notable increase in telehealth use during the global pandemic, broadband coverage has only increased by around 10%.
There is a conspicuous perception that this division is separated by dichotomous “haves” and “have-nots”. However, an underlying factor in defining this form of social determinant of health [SDoH] beyond pure availability, it is sufficiency. In some underserved geographies, Internet service providers [ISPs] have made limited investments in improving internet speeds for consumers, failing to support the minimum upload and download speeds needed to bridge the digital divide. This would obviously have a big impact on telehealth visits. Slower internet speeds create a barrier to telehealth use, and this example is magnified in low-income areas. The practice of some ISPs investing less in broadband infrastructure in low-income and marginalized communities is a modern form of redlining.
While rapid mitigation is unclear and complex, there is evidence that healthcare plans are uniquely positioned to address the digital divide in a way that not only improves access to care, but also improves performance. plan.
The continuum of the digital divide
The digital divide in healthcare is not just about access; rather, it represents a continuum of issues that must be surmountable for populations to reap the benefits of digital care. These various obstacles range from lack of digital knowledge and inaccessibility of equipment to limited access to telephone data.
For example, a household may have access to broadband, but some (if not all) within the household may not be able to install or understand how to connect to Wi-Fi. In fact, digital illiteracy can create a major obstacle to any Internet access. Many experience rote, persistent and uninterrupted Internet use (or the occasional nuisance disruption), but there is still 7% of Americans who say they are not going online at all. line, including 14% of those with a household income of less than $ 30,000 per year and a quarter of those 65 and over.
There are other barriers that contribute to the inaccessibility of digital healthcare. For example, a household’s lack of minimum broadband speed can hinder and hamper a telehealth visit. Lack of high-speed internet access is more prevalent in rural communities. Conversely, someone may have full broadband access but not have the necessary equipment to access digital care.
How health plans can help
Pre-COVID digital healthcare usage data, released by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, shows a strong correlation between income and access to healthcare. For example, in 2019, 53% of households with incomes over $ 100,000 viewed health records or health insurance online. This figure was only 14% for households with incomes below $ 25,000 and 24% for households with incomes between $ 25,000 and $ 49,999. Likewise, in 2019, 40% of households with incomes over $ 100,000 contacted a healthcare professional online, compared with only 12% of those with incomes below $ 25,000 and 18% of those with an income below $ 25,000. between $ 25,000 and $ 49,999.
Health plans have an innovative opportunity to address this disparity in a simple way: to offer free or low cost broadband as a benefit to its members. It is surprising to see the very limited number of plans that currently offer this, especially considering the financial savings that can be generated through telehealth.
Most Medicaid plans, for example, already invest significant sums in SDoH program benefits each year to encourage members to take action in their health care. By comparison, providing free or low-cost broadband access is a relatively inexpensive investment that generates a high return on investment.
The plans can further bridge the digital divide by investing in programs aimed at improving members’ digital literacy, enabling a better understanding of how to access valuable programs and services, and improving their healthcare experience. Simply put, members with full high-speed internet access and knowing how to use it are more likely to make a commitment to improve their health.
A golden opportunity
The digital divide provides an opportunity for plans to retain and satisfy members by offering or connecting members to broadband benefits and equipment providers that support the bridging of the divide. While the most obvious benefit is improved member outcomes through access to telehealth, other key benefits for plans helping to improve digital access include:
- Another point of contact to reach members. Digital access gives members another easy way to communicate with their health plan. This enables communication and engagement by using communication through another channel and improving access to reliable contact information for members. It also creates a more frictionless and less abrasive ecosystem in which to engage the limb.
- Improved member satisfaction and retention. If a plan offers broadband access, it creates member loyalty since it is a coveted asset. Member satisfaction helps reduce churn rates necessary for health plans to grow.
Investing in digital access and member literacy is a simple solution that lowers barriers to access and use, helps improve health outcomes, and pushes members towards cost-effective solutions. In an industry with zero-sum effects, expanding digital access is beneficial for all members, plans and providers. Diets win because they help them improve member health as well as a number of performance metrics including member satisfaction and engagement. Providers benefit because it opens up another channel to engage members, especially when the focus is more on value-based care. And, more importantly, members win because broadband can expand access to healthcare with improved health and outcomes.
Sara Ratner is Senior Vice President of Government Markets and Strategic Initiatives at Icario.