Viewpoint: Internet access is a 'super-determinant of health' that must be expanded

Lack of internet access affects healthcare in more ways than just telehealth; it limits a person's ability to connect with physicians, research health conditions and find medical resources.

In a July 7 op-ed for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Carmen Guerra, vice chair of diversity and inclusion at University of Pennsylvania's medical school; Jeffrey Millstein, associate medical director for patient experience at Penn Medicine Woodbury Heights; and Rolando Vega, nursing student at University of Pennsylvania, explain the impact that broadband access, or lack thereof, can have on the nation's health.

About 21.3 million Americans, or 6.5 percent of the population, live in "digital deserts" and lack access to broadband internet service, according to the Federal Communications Commission. While the COVID-19 pandemic has helped expand care to patients through telehealth, it has also revealed a digital divide among patient populations who cannot afford or access broadband.

"Without internet access, people are unable to communicate freely with their physicians, to access electronic medical records, to research health conditions and treatment, or find resources for healthy behaviors and lifestyle changes," the co-authors wrote.

The FCC created a mapping tool, called Connect2Health Task Force, that allows users to overlay and analyze broadband and health data, such as diabetes, obesity and physician access, at the national, state and county levels. If the digital divide is not rectified, these health disparities across the country will continue to worsen, according to the report.

Public health experts have called the impact of broadband internet access on the country's health a "super-determinant of health" because without it, people are unable to find resources and support for healthy behaviors and lifestyle changes, the co-authors wrote.

The co-authors concluded that the Pennsylvania education and health departments should recognize broadband access as a super-determinant of health and expand access for all families residing in the state.

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