It’s 6 o’clock on a Monday evening and a dozen adults, socially distanced in a room at the Open Door Family Medical Center in Sleepy Hollow, are beginning an in-person technology class as part of a unique program offered by the Federally Qualified Health Center.
The participants work on Chrome Books they received as part of a partnership with the STEM Alliance, in addition to a year’s worth of free internet service. As important as the hardware and service, they receive hands-on education that will allow them to do everything from accessing the internet for information, to sending and receiving emails; from learning how to get on virtual conference calls, to checking their health information on Open Door’s patient portal.
The “Digital Divide” is a term used to describe the gap between community members who have the access to use computer devices and the internet and those who do not.
“At Open Door, digital literacy is a health equity and access issue,” said Grace Battaglia, director of marketing and community outreach at Open Door. “Patients who cannot access their health information or communicate with their provider face a barrier to their care and treatment plans.”
The nearly 50-year-old community health center provides its patients, many who live at or below the Federal Poverty Level of $26,400 for a family of four, with the education, tools, resources, and support to be engaged with their care and confidently use technology to improve health outcomes.
The digital divide has only grown wider since the pandemic started. Pew Research has found that those with lower income, lower educational attainment and increased age are the most likely to be digitally divided from using the internet. Many of the patients served by Open Door fall into one or more of these categories.
“The inability to transition to telemedicine or virtual care can make the difference between patients continuing their medical care or not,” said Battaglia. “Patients share that without internet and basic digital knowledge, there is so much that they simply cannot do.”
The program is now completing its second cohort of patients. Classes, in Spanish as well as English, run for two-and-a-half hours a session over five weeks. Should a patient be unable to attend a class, a one-on-one lesson is scheduled virtually at a different time. Lessons are customized to meet the needs and the skill levels of the participants, who have been referred by their Open Door provider or referring staff member. In addition, a dedicated helpline was set up to assist patients with digital literacy needs — whether the need is to create an email address for the first time or navigate the Open Door Patient Portal to view their lab results.
“Many of the participating patients are referred to our digital literacy program by providers who recognize that a particular individual or family will greatly benefit,” said Battaglia. Patients selected often have a chronic illness, or perhaps a family member who needs additional virtual support services. By conducting an assessment and getting to know the participating patients, we can ensure that each cohort has the greatest impact possible.”
Open Door remains committed to answering the needs of its patients. Currently, Open Door is exploring funding sources to continue providing patients with digital literacy training, as well as the possibility of Chromebooks and internet access for qualifying patients and families.
“Health care goes beyond the exam room,” she said. “Patients in the program are 100 percent invested and are grateful to access their patient information and complete tasks like placing a grocery order online. They were not able to do this before taking our class.”