Guest Column | March 23, 2021

Bridging The Digital Divide: Virtual Care Accessibility Options For Everyone

By Josh Weiner, CEO, SR Health by Solutionreach

Virtual doctor patient data

This month marks one year since COVID-19 mushroomed across the planet and changed everything. For healthcare providers, the pandemic has been a major disruption that led to in-office safety protocols and created a chilling effect as patients refrained from scheduling the care they needed. Medical practices across the country resorted to reducing their hours or temporarily shuttering their offices. For many in the healthcare business, the reduction in appointments and closures precipitated revenue shortfalls of as much as 50 percent.

But with hindsight being 20/20, no one anticipated the immediate and immeasurable impact that the emergence of telehealth would have on reframing how we think about healthcare. Providers embraced the technology as a way to resume patient care, offer patients a safer alternative, and reduce costs. Similarly, patients had few qualms about migrating toward a form of care delivery where they could have a doctor’s visit from the comfort and safety of their home.

As a result, telehealth visits skyrocketed—during the third quarter of 2020 alone, patients scheduled 30 times as many telehealth visits as the previous year. Another study reported that telehealth usage increased nearly 60 percent over 2019. And its growth doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. The telehealth market is expected to reach $185 billion by 2026, a far cry from the 2018 estimate of $34 billion.

However, as with most technologies, not everyone is on a level playing field, particularly when it comes to access. Despite exponential telecommunications technology development, there are still rural areas of the U.S. where broadband internet service is not available. In a 2019 report, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) projected that 21 million Americans didn’t have broadband access. As a result, the agency approved more than $20 billion for a Rural Digital Opportunity fund to help extend services to those residents. Yet a subsequent report from Broadband Now suggests that not only were the FCC’s estimates off but that the actual number of Americans without broadband is double that at 42 million. Some have even referred to this disparity in technology access as a “digital divide.”

In the absence of broadband service, significant numbers of patients may also not have access to telehealth, which may affect their access to healthcare and patient outcomes. One study found that areas with limited broadband access also had higher rates of chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes, creating a “double burden” where those with the lowest connectivity have the highest needs. “Unfortunately, the rural and underserved populations who stand to benefit the most from telehealth approaches are also the least likely to have access to broadband or high-speed internet,” concluded a related study.

The good news is that we live in an era of exponential advances in modern communication technologies, and some are more available than others. Patients without access to broadband to conduct telehealth visits from their computers or tablets likely own smartphones from which they can connect with providers for video or audio appointments.

Since most adults own a smartphone and use it to text message, it’s only logical that texting is a natural medium for providers to effectively communicate with patients. Data suggests that texting is how a vast majority of patients now want to connect with their providers. Nearly 80 percent of patients want to be able to receive texts from their medical provider and 73 percent of them want to be able to send text messages to their provider.

The other wrinkle here is that telehealth is but one tool within the accessory-packed Swiss army knife that makes up digital care opportunities. Through texting, providers can reach people at a variety of touchpoints throughout the patient journey, even when telehealth may not be an option. From appointment reminders and recall messages to pre-visit instructions, digital intake, and post-appointment follow-up, virtual care delivered through texting is a more effective and efficient approach for providers to communicate with and extend care to patients. Improved communication through texting leads to a more seamless virtual care appointment workflow with patients getting the care they need when they need it.

Throw in HIPAA-compliant, two-way texting and the newer care service of virtual check-ins and the possibilities of virtual care seem endless. Two-way texting empowers patients to text their provider questions in real-time and participate in an ongoing conversation instead of getting stuck on hold or playing phone tag. Billable 10-minute virtual check-ins allow a patient to briefly chat with their doctor by video, text, or phone call.

In sum, digital and virtual care options abound for patients, even those in rural areas of the country that may not have access to telehealth services via broadband. Providers who take advantage of modern technology and texting capabilities to offer virtual care services will be better prepared to engage with, support, and care for their patients, no matter where they live.

About The Author

Josh Weiner is the CEO of SR Health by Solutionreach. He joined Solutionreach from Summit Partners, a leading global growth equity firm. Through his work with Summit Partners, Josh served on the Solutionreach board of directors for three years. Before Summit Partners, he was a consultant with McKinsey & Company. Josh is a graduate of Stanford University and resides in Salt Lake City with his wife and two children. Josh and his family spend as much time as possible exploring the natural wonders of Utah's mountains and deserts. Connect with him on LinkedIn @joshfweiner.