The digital divide has never been wider.
The term itself refers to the growing gap between those with access to modern information and communications technology and those that lack it, or have restricted access.
Part of this involves having the necessary tools – computers, smart phones, use of the Internet, Wi-Fi. But part of it also includes digital literacy – the know-how needed to use the available resources to access and take advantage of the information.
COVID-19 brought ever-greater attention to the divide, highlighting the hardships for those left on the wrong side of the equation as the world turned more and more isolated. In no sector was this more evident than in health care. When it came to medical needs – from seeing a pediatrician about a child’s cough, to visiting a Behavioral Health specialist for depression – physician visits became increasingly conducted through telehealth.
At Open Door Family Medical Center in Westchester and Putnam counties and other health centers around the country, telehealth visits increased considerably during the pandemic. Nearly one third of all health visits were conducted using telehealth from spring to fall 2020. According to 2019 Health Center Program Data, 43 percent of health centers were capable of providing telemedicine at that time; however, by the time the pandemic was at its height in (approximate date), 95 percent reported using it.
Not everyone, however, has been “invited to the dance”. Many are unable to afford the connection and/or lack the knowledge or comfort level.
“For someone who has never used telehealth, it can be overwhelming,” said Grace Battaglia, director of marketing for Open Door Family Medical Center. “If you don’t have a good picture, you’re not going to be able to show your provider your rash. And if you don’t have the education, these platforms won’t be useful. Even when you can assume an individual has a device and a good Internet connection, the question is whether they also have the trust and knowledge to feel comfortable walking through the process.”
Now, with the pandemic a little less daunting, telehealth remains an attractive option for many, at least for those with the resources and the digital literacy to take advantage of it. Battaglia believes providers, particularly those serving patients in vulnerable communities, must invest in helping patients become more digitally savvy. Specifically, this is needed to allow them to use telehealth and access the information available in their patient portal.
She recently participated in a webinar hosted by The Stem Alliance, which over the past year had partnered with Open Door in providing free computers and internet service and hosting bilingual classes for those patients of the federally qualified health center who would be most impacted. This included those with chronic illness or with children who suffer from asthma, diabetes, and other diseases.
Open Door is now designing a pilot program with MVP Health Care, a nationally recognized non-profit insurance provider, that will mirror the Stem Alliance program. Open Door patients who are insured by MVP will be selected to participate in digital literacy classes and eligible patients will receive access to the necessary technology. This will include free computers, Internet, and group instruction, as well as one-on-one hands on training. To optimize impact, participants will be selected from patients and families who need it most, based on current health and need for telehealth services.
“We will always be just a phone call away if they have any questions or need a refresher course, and we will continue to provide free and ongoing services,” said Battaglia. “The digital journey for our patients is just beginning. So even after completing the program, we maintain our commitment to being a resource for ongoing digital literacy education and access.”