"Telemedicine" is a concept that has been around for years but rose to prominence during the COVID-19 outbreak.  Once being in quarantine became a “new norm” for people, there was increased demand for virtual and/or distance-based medical services which allowed them to consult with doctors without visiting a clinic in person.

In the abstract, this seems like a good thing - and for many people, it has been.  However, it only has benefited people who already had the equipment and infrastructure in place to make use of telehealth services.  For everyone else, those on the wrong side of the so-called "digital divide," it has made healthcare even harder to obtain.

What Are Some Differences Between Telemedicine & Traditional Medicine?

Before diving too deep into the details, you may be wondering about the primary differences between telemedicine and why these differences may have furthered to widen the digital divide. Some of the foremost differences include:

·  Telemedicine is unique when compared to a phone call with your traditional healthcare provider.

·   Although not an entirely new form of medicine, telemedicine definitional terms are not standardized yet and are still being ironed out at both the state and federal level.

·   It’s important to note that telemedicine is not reimbursed by federal and state insurance programs (the COVID emergency provisions in place remain the only exception, however, these are temporary).

·   Generally, commercial insurance companies are still on the fence when it comes to the cost for the benefits under their current risk structure.

How Telemedicine Has Worsened the Digital Divide

Exact numbers vary somewhat between studies, but broadly speaking, around 80% of the American public has a smartphone, and around 75% have broadband access.  That means that at least one-fifth of the U.S. population is completely unable to get telemedicine services, and those without high-speed connections (either wired or cellular) will be challenged as well, even if they have a compatible smart device.

That's tens of millions of people still frozen out of distance-based medicine.

Making the problem worse is that the majority of people lacking smartphones or broadband services are living in rural areas.  These areas are already challenged in terms of having quality local healthcare.  Often, they only have small local clinics or general practices, with prohibitively long drives required to reach a full-sized hospital.

In an ideal world, telemedicine would be a partial solution to this problem, but not as long as the digital divide continues to cut off people in these communities from modern telecommunications.

In addition, the implementation of telemedicine services has been spotty and - in many cases - downright ad-hoc.  Some providers take pains to offer top-quality services; others seem to view telemedicine as an afterthought.  Since distance medicine usually has a lower price tag attached, some for-profit providers may not deem it worthy of substantial investment.  More research into this area is definitely needed, especially into how much impact such choices are having on rural, disadvantaged, or marginalized people.

Socially Determined

Socially Determined® is working to improve healthcare access for all people.  We have developed a Digital Landscape social risk metric to help payers, providers, life science companies and more assess digital equity within a population or community they serve to understand its impact on health outcomes. This score offers an advanced and comprehensive analysis of factors related to digital access, affordability, digital literacy, and how they all intersect. With this Social Risk Intelligence™, organizations can make informed decisions about where to intervene and help those who need it most. For more information on our Digital Landscape risk metric from the expert who built it, watch our video.

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