Underserved populations use telehealth least, study finds

Low-income and rural patients are least likely to access healthcare services delivered remotely via video, phone call or text message, according to a study published in Health Affairs.

Researchers from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., reviewed four years of data from a survey commissioned by the Association of American Medical Colleges to assess trends in remote care, also called telehealth. The survey, designed to be representative of the U.S. population, included responses from 22,000 American adults.

Telehealth use increased during the study period, from 2013 to 2016,  in part due to providers offering remote care through emerging technologies such as live video, live chat, texting and smartphone applications. In June 2013, 6.6 percent of respondents had accessed healthcare services through video consultations, compared to 21.6 percent by December 2016.

The use of video consultations was most common among higher income respondents and those who had difficulty leaving their homes.

But underserved populations — such as low-income, rural and Medicaid populations — did not use video-based telehealth as widely as other demographic groups. The researchers identified this trend across the U.S., even in states with less restrictive telehealth policies — suggesting that providers and patients will need incentives to adopt the service that go beyond removing regulatory restrictions.

Low-income, rural and Medicaid populations may not be adopting telehealth at high levels because they lack access to available providers who offer remote care, the researchers hypothesized.

"Only 38 percent of community health centers — major health service providers for underserved populations — offered telehealth," lead author Jeongyoung Park, PhD, assistant professor at the GWU School of Nursing, said in a news release. "Policies that incentivize providers to adopt telehealth could be an important way to increase access for underserved populations."

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