Telemedicine a Saving Grace — Unless You’re Poor or Don’t Speak English

August 19, 2020

// By Marcia Simon, APR //

Marcia SimonTelemedicine came to the rescue when COVID-19 first rattled the capacity and safety of health care delivery. It didn’t take long for hospitals, providers, and patients to embrace the conveniences, especially when federal waivers allowed for expanded access to virtual care services, and payers relaxed their reimbursement guidelines.

Hospitals found that virtual wellness classes and support groups were hassle-free compared to juggling cancellations and schedules. And so, telemedicine is on board to become a routine way to conduct appointments.

But there’s a problem: The pandemic shed light on disparities in health care access. While privileged communities are singing the praises of telehealth, the rise in virtual visits has not carried over to the most vulnerable underserved populations, which have experienced a drop-off in care for chronic conditions since the pandemic began.

Ann Mond Johnson, CEO, American Telemedicine Association

Ann Mond Johnson, CEO, American Telemedicine Association

For the most part, American telemedicine platforms are built around the English language, and you need an internet connection to use the platforms. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work for the vulnerable rural poor, many elderly patients, ethnic minorities, and those with low socioeconomic status who experience technology or language barriers, or both. These populations may never get to experience the benefits of telehealth to manage chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, or cancer.

“Just getting access to talk to a provider might require additional language support from a family member, or additional coaching from the provider,” explains Ann Mond Johnson, CEO, American Telemedicine Association (ATA). “Who helps the patient set up the technology?” she asks.

From software setup to portal prompts, all the great advances in telehealth are meaningless when everything is in English and you speak only Vietnamese, for example. Scheduling a virtual visit is not a solution when you don’t have a computer, a smartphone, or WiFi.

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