The Future of Health Care & the Digital Divide

Health and Digital Disparities
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As the nation’s health care services are increasingly delivered and accessed online, a divide is becoming more apparent between those who have access to broadband and those who do not. Making matters more complicated is the fact that more and more health care services are being offered online as well as mandates for electronic medical records. This trend toward the digitization of everything healthcare related could leave many unserved and underserved users on the wrong side of the digital divide.

To prevent this divide from widening, we as a nation must take affirmative steps to promote investment and innovation in broadband infrastructure as well as encouraging greater digital literacy. Without investment in critical broadband infrastructure, traditionally vulnerable and underserved segments of society will not have adequate access to broadband and the healthcare services that it will deliver. This means that underserved persons with diabetes and heart disease will not benefit from digital monitoring and online telehealth applications designed to monitor and detect abnormalities, before they become harmful or fatal problems. It is important to note that chronic disease disproportionately affects communities of color, seniors and low-income persons who stand to benefit most from chronic disease management services delivered online.

Investment — in health and digital literacy, and broadband infrastructure — is the first step toward providing access to all Americans. Innovation naturally follows next, as innovators and small business owners eager to invent new services find their way into the healthcare IT business and begin offering newer and better solutions that improve the quality of life of those with broadband access. But universal health care without universal broadband access could unintentionally create a new generation of medically underserved Americans – a new social class of high speed internet “have nots” — who will be unwillingly segregated from the broadband health care services that their fellow citizens enjoy.

The same obstacles that technology is designed to eliminate — weather, transportation, wait times — for the health care recipient who has to travel 10 miles to a library to use the Internet to access telehealth, the obstacles to change in name only; it’s as difficult to access broadband as it is to make a traditional doctors visit. Let’s avoid this tragedy by ensuring broadband access for all Americans by preserving the environment that has borne the thriving Internet we know today.

Marcia Thomas-Brown is an IIA Broadband Ambassador, Chief Operating Officer of the National Health IT Collaborative for the Underserved, and Program Manager for Health Information Technology at the Summit Institute for Research and Education.
Author: Marcia Thomas-Brown

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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and commenter alone, and do not represent an official position of the National Health IT Collaborative for the Underserved or its funders.