During the Pandemic, There Was a Large Racial Gap in the Use of Telemedicine

Historical data shows minorities have long faced obstacles to getting the critical health care services they need. When COVID-19 arrived two years ago, telemedicine emerged with the promise of better access to care through virtual delivery of clinical services and consultations.

But according to a new study led by a researcher at the University of Houston College of Medicine, the rapid implementation of telemedicine didn’t bridge the gap as much as people had hoped.

The research team examined electronic medical records from 55 individual clinics in six different counties in Texas. They found that African Americans were 35 percent less likely than Whites to use telemedicine. But the main reason for the disparity was not mistrust of the medical establishment, but rather the racial digital divide.

“The people who really need to access their primary care providers might be cut out of telemedicine because they don’t have the technology or might not know how to use it,” said Omolola Adepoju, a clinical associate professor at the University of Houston College of Medicine, director of research at the Humana Integrated Health Sciences Institute, and the lead author of the study.

According to Dr. Adepoju, only one in four families earning $30,000 or less have smart devices, such as a phone, tablet, or laptop, compared to nearly three in four families earning $100,000 or more. And only 66 percent of African American households have access to broadband internet compared to 79 percent of White households.

Going forward, “clinics will need a technology support system,” Dr. Adepoju said. “A staff that conducts pre-visit device and connectivity testing with patients can be instrumental to helping patients maximize telemedicine as an access to care option.”

The study, “Utilization Gaps During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Telemedicine Uptake in Federally Qualified Health Center Clinics,” was published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine. It may be accessed here.

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