Telehealth has been applauded for its ability to increase access to healthcare, especially during the pandemic, but when looking at telehealth usage for different social determinant health categories significant disparities exist, according to analysis from Kantar Health.
Kantar Health’s Social Determinants of Telehealth monitor combines results from its National Health and Wellness survey with claims data provided by Komodo to assess how socioeconomic factors impact telehealth usage.
The data tracker illustrates usage disparities across several different demographics which indicates health outcome inequalities for some groups and advantages for others, according to Kantar Health.
For example, across racial/ethnic groups, Hispanic individuals use telehealth more frequently than any other group. During the week of August 10, the most recent week on Kantar Health’s tracker, 21% of adults in the Hispanic category used a telehealth service. When compared to other racial/ethnic groups during that same time, 16% of non-Hispanic Black individuals and 13% of non-Hispanic white individuals used telehealth.
Because the Hispanic population has a higher prevalence of diabetes and obesity – two conditions that require chronic care management – Kantar Health believes their increased use of telehealth will lead to better adherence to chronic disease medications and positive health outcomes.
On the flip side are obese patients, who at the beginning of the pandemic had a peak of telehealth usage of 34% during the week of April 6. Since then, however, telehealth usage among obese individuals has fallen to 14% during the week of August 10. This dip signals that this group, which is more susceptible to chronic diseases, is not sufficiently managing their health and may be at risk of exacerbating conditions, according to Kantar Health.
Another category of individuals who already face health disparities that are using telehealth less than their counterparts are people living in rural communities. Like the obese group, rural telehealth usage peaked in early April with 29% using telehealth during the first week. Most recently, only 9% have used telehealth, compared to those living in urban areas where 15% used it during the week of August 10.
WHY THIS MATTERS
Across the U.S., 81 million people live in Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSA), or areas with too few primary care, dental, and mental health care providers or services, according to the Health Resources & Services Administration.
One of the primary goals of telehealth is to bridge the care gap for those people who live in an HPSA. However, research suggests that although it improves access in some ways, telehealth can highlight other disparities.
For instance, although telehealth alleviates the need to have access to transportation, child care and time for in-person visits, it relies on the patient having access to technology and internet connectivity.
As a result, researchers from Kantar Health suggest that as telehealth services continue to be used, inequalities in access and usage should be monitored to find ways to close healthcare gaps.
THE LARGER TREND
On the whole, telehealth usage has dropped significantly from the onset of the pandemic, according to Kantar Health. During the week of April 6, more than a third of the total U.S. population had an encounter with telehealth. That percentage has since fallen to 14% during the week of August 10.
Despite decreases in usage, the telehealth boom doesn’t need to end, according to Dr. Andrey Ostrovsky, the former chief medical officer of the U.S. Medicaid program. He says that telehealth should be implemented into the healthcare fold as it has the flexibility to meet the needs of millions of Americans.
Investors have also shown their support for the shift towards digital health solutions. During the third quarter of 2020, MobiHealthNews covered 109 investment deals and announcements totaling $4.6 billion for digital health startups and health tech innovators.
ON THE RECORD
“During this global pandemic, we feel an immense responsibility to use our resources to improve patients’ access to quality healthcare. Telehealth can be a driving force to reach all populations,” said Lynnette Cooke, global CEO of Kantar Health. “However, it won’t happen by accident. Studies like our Social Determinants of Telehealth monitor will help to uncover the truths – both inequities and advantages. We must shine a light on these truths.”