What 5 studies say about telehealth's potential to shrink health disparities

Telehealth use has exploded since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and created a host of potential ways to improve care delivery, most notably by offering patients more convenience in managing chronic conditions and access to timely healthcare. 

The healthcare industry is paying close attention to virtual care's role in eliminating health disparities in the U.S., and many studies are emerging on which patient populations could benefit most from telehealth. 

For example, a January study from Boston-based Brigham and Women's Hospital found Black patients were twice as likely to use telemedicine than white patients. 

Telehealth also seems to have increased follow-up appointment attendance for Black patients, a study published Jan. 11 in the Journal of General Internal Medicine showed. 

Compared to white patients, Black patients tend to have lower completion rates of attending follow-up appointments. When Black patients were offered a telemedicine follow-up visit after being discharged from Philadelphia-based University of Pennsylvania Health System, their completion rates rose from 52 percent to 70 percent from January 2020 to June 2020, the study showed.

However, a study published Jan. 5 in Cancer Medicine revealed that low-income, non-English-speaking patients of Hispanic and Asian ethnicities may be less likely to use telemedicine.

The study found Hispanic patients had 14 percent lower odds of using telemedicine than non-Hispanic white patients. Asian patients were 21 percent less likely to use telemedicine than white people. Language played a major factor in telehealth use too, with Spanish speakers having 29 percent decreased odds of using the service, and other non-English and non-Spanish language speakers 28 percent less likely to use telemedicine. 

These findings suggest that although telehealth aims to close gaps in healthcare access and outcomes, it is still failing to reach people who may benefit most. The results of an HHS study released Feb. 1 also suggest this, as they showed the demographic data of Americans who use video telehealth services favors the young, rich and white. Among telehealth video users, 72.5 percent were between ages 18 and 24, 68.8 percent earned at least $100,000, 61.9 percent were white and 65.9 percent had private insurance.

Video telehealth rates were lowest among respondents without a high school diploma (38.1 percent) and among people older than 65 (43.5 percent).

A Jan. 20 study published in the Annals of Family Medicine examined how telehealth can better serve older patients. The researchers found telehealth for older people would benefit from including caregivers as they can ensure questions, concerns and care provided are properly assessed.

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