With telehealth expanding dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic, several organizations have banded together to boost access to virtual care for marginalized and underserved communities.
The Telehealth Equity Coalition (TEC) was formed to improve access to quality and affordable healthcare by increasing adoption of telehealth, especially among those who have been left out or left behind. The coalition plans to take a data-driven approach to identifying opportunities and advocating to improve telehealth policy and will specifically target seniors, people with economic hardship or social vulnerabilities and rural communities.
Organizations participating in the TEC include the American Telehealth Association, personal wellness company Hims & Hers, the Howard University Department of Community and Medicine and the Health Innovation Alliance. Other founding members of TEC include Adaptation Health, BlackDoctor.org, Foley & Lardner, Grapevine Health, National Digital Inclusion Alliance, the National MS Society and TechNet.
"Access to quality care and producing great and consistent outcomes for underserved communities is a long-standing blight on our healthcare system,” Joel White, executive director of the Health Innovation Alliance, said in a statement. “Now we have at our fingertips the opportunity to break this trend and get people the care they need via telehealth.”
Telehealth is surging in use amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Of the patients who used virtual case tools during the pandemic, more than 60% plan to continue using them to communicate with their healthcare providers and manage their conditions going forward, an Accenture survey revealed.
A lack of broadband and tech skills hampers underserved areas and is a roadblock to telehealth adoption, industry leaders say. More than 31.8 million Americans lack computer access, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (PDF). When 5G and other ultra-high-speed networks become available, underserved communities may be left behind, according to Luis Belen, CEO of the National Health IT Collaborative for the Underserved.
Belen's organization, NHIT Collaborative, recently launched the Data Fusion Center, a new platform with curated, de-identified data and tools that allow a far more granular understanding of telehealth and COVID-19-relevant disparities, Belen said.
As part of the work of the coalition, NHIT will offer coalition members access to its Data Fusion Center.
“The NHIT Fusion Center aggregates traditional and non-traditional sources of information to measure telehealth access and impact,” Belen told Fierce Healthcare.
He added that the NHIT Fusion Center has dashboards that let members of the TEC create visualizations ranging from simple tables to complex geospatial data. In addition, the members can share data stories among the community to help increase access to care. The coalition plans to use data to identify ways to improve telehealth policy. It will use an open-source dashboard and maps to share health knowledge.
“For academic partners, it's an opportunity to access new sets of data, access powerful analytic platforms through the Data Fusion Center and conduct research that they couldn't in the past,” Belen said.
“We are working alongside researchers to unearth barriers to accessing telehealth and identify where telehealth could be an asset,” April Mims, vice president of policy for personal care retailer and wellness company Hims & Hers, told Fierce Healthcare. Hims & Hers also offers telehealth for conditions such as primary care, mental health, sexual health and dermatology. “We are starting with listening to what communities need and understanding their priorities, then we are asking questions that research could help us answer.”
Mims and Belen began discussing ideas for the coalition in the fall of 2020, according to Belen.
“We wanted to work together more formally on this issue, and we noticed that no coalition out there was focusing solely on telehealth equity,” Belen said. Through a collaboration between NHIT and Amazon Web Services, Tyler Technologies and Stony Brook University in building a Data Fusion Center, the parties developed the idea of the coalition. Since then, Belen and the participants have been reaching out to communities, universities, industry and government officials to seek support for health equity, Belen said.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has increased telehealth access, these services have not been distributed equally, Belen noted.
The companies in the coalition plan to advocate for public policies in government that will increase telehealth for underserved communities. To address equity in communities, Hims & Hers is working on launching telehealth services in Spanish and offering primary care for $39 per visit.
“There is still important work to do, so at Hims & Hers, we will be going through the same process as other companies in the coalition of listening to community stakeholders, learning from data, sharing information and implementing our findings,” Mims said.
To increase telehealth access to underserved communities, organizations will support nongovernmental organizations that represent those groups, according to Mims.
Solving the challenges of inequity in telehealth requires an “all hands on deck approach to ensure we are not exacerbating the telehealth divide,” Belen said. He added that the effort will require health literacy and digital navigators.
“The key will be ensuring that the people and populations who lack access to in-person care also don't lack access to virtual care,” Belen said, “and that the care available virtually is aligned with their needs.”