Disparities in Telemedicine Access: A Cross-Sectional Study of a Newly Established Infrastructure during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Appl Clin Inform. 2021 May;12(3):445-458. doi: 10.1055/s-0041-1730026. Epub 2021 Jun 9.


BACKGROUND: The COVID-19 pandemic led to dramatic increases in telemedicine use to provide outpatient care without in-person contact risks. Telemedicine increases options for health care access, but a “digital divide” of disparate access may prevent certain populations from realizing the benefits of telemedicine.

OBJECTIVES: The study aimed to understand telemedicine utilization patterns after a widespread deployment to identify potential disparities exacerbated by expanded telemedicine usage.

METHODS: We performed a cross-sectional retrospective analysis of adults who scheduled outpatient visits between June 1, 2020 and August 31, 2020 at a single-integrated academic health system encompassing a broad range of subspecialties and a large geographic region in the Upper Midwest, during a period of time after the initial surge of COVID-19 when most standard clinical services had resumed. At the beginning of this study period, approximately 72% of provider visits were telemedicine visits. The primary study outcome was whether a patient had one or more video-based visits, compared with audio-only (telephone) visits or in-person visits only. The secondary outcome was whether a patient had any telemedicine visits (video-based or audio-only), compared with in-person visits only.

RESULTS: A total of 197,076 individuals were eligible (average age = 46 years, 56% females). Increasing age, rural status, Asian or Black/African American race, Hispanic ethnicity, and self-pay/uninsured status were significantly negatively associated with having a video visit. Digital literacy, measured by patient portal activation status, was significantly positively associated with having a video visit, as were Medicaid or Medicare as payer and American Indian/Alaskan Native race.

CONCLUSION: Our findings reinforce previous evidence that older age, rural status, lower socioeconomic status, Asian race, Black/African American race, and Hispanic/Latino ethnicity are associated with lower rates of video-based telemedicine use. Health systems and policies should seek to mitigate such barriers to telemedicine when possible, with efforts such as digital literacy outreach and equitable distribution of telemedicine infrastructure.

PMID:34107542 | PMC:PMC8189758 | DOI:10.1055/s-0041-1730026