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Virtual Care’s Role in Building Health Equity

In a string of years marred by some of the most challenging times in recent healthcare history, one positive trend is the buzz that has been building around health equity. Recognition of health disparity and the push to reduce it is building.

As providers look to build more accessible and inclusive care models for patients, virtual care has an important role to play. Here are a few examples of how telehealth is helping the cause.

Rural Care Access

Telehealth has long been lauded for its ability to reduce rural health disparity by facilitating virtual access to specialist care for patients in medically underserved areas.

Virtual care encounters also reduce barriers to care for patients who reside far from their local providers. Recent research revealed that patients with longer commute times to care sites were more likely to use telemedicine services, and the likelihood of having a telemedicine appointment grew with increasing commute times. Virtual engagement options similarly improve care access for those who have schedule restrictions and those without reliable transportation, many of whom are also economically disadvantaged.

To mitigate the risk of amplifying health inequity for those without access to broadband or enabling technology, many healthcare organizations are dispensing devices to patients to ensure equitable access to virtual care. Local, community-based outlets are increasingly providing device access, as well.

Engaging with Disabled Patients

One area where virtual care and digital health innovation can play a tremendous role in promoting health equity is within the disabled community. Travel arrangements can be particularly difficult and costly for patients with mobility limitations.

More than 60 million adults in the US have a disability, including more than 4.7 million Veterans with a service-related disability. The CDC reports higher rates of obesity, smoking, heart disease, and diabetes among disabled populations, making it imperative that these patients receive proper care. Virtual-first models ensure the most convenient option is the first line of defense in healthcare delivery.

Virtual engagement is ripe for further innovation in disabled care. As advancements in computer vision and precision eye-tracking enter the market, non-verbal patients are empowered to engage with remote clinicians. The incorporation of eye-tracking into virtual care also introduces new possibilities in the field of remote clinical diagnostics for neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s, autism, and Parkinson’s, where problems in the brain can typically be detected in eye function.

Language Interpretation Services

For many patients, healthcare can be out of reach due to communication barriers. This can lead to greater health disparity, particularly within healthcare organizations serving culturally diverse patient populations. Patients with limited English proficiency, or LEP, are at a disadvantage to receive equal access to services due to the language barrier.

By integrating virtual remote interpretation capabilities into telehealth programs, health systems are reducing health inequities for deaf, hard of hearing, and LEP patients. This ensures 24/7 access to high-quality remote interpreters trained to provide culturally competent communication to support patient care. Video-enabled virtual engagement additionally supports ASL-based communication and allows providers to pick up on non-verbal patient cues and body language.

Decentralized Clinical Trial Support

Telehealth is also being used to support greater diversity in clinical trials where minorities have traditionally been underrepresented. Some 50% of FDA trials are conducted in one to two percent of all US zip codes. This limits research into the efficacy of care treatments across diverse populations. Through virtually enabled remote clinical trials, medical researchers can cast a broader geographic net to ensure that the patient sample is more reflective of the population.

Each of these virtual care initiatives plays a part in reducing health disparities and advancing patient care. And we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of what’s possible. As hybrid care and digital health innovation continue to ramp up in the coming years, telehealth will continue to redefine how we think about patient engagement and care.

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