Telehealth did not significantly reduce healthcare disparities among racial and ethnic groups

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A new study by the University of Houston College of Medicine showed that contrary to many people’s expectations, the growing popularity of telemedicine, which was a result of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, racial and ethnic disparities in receiving critical care persisted.

The study, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, was led by Omolola Adepoju, PhD, MPH, a clinical associate professor at the UH College of Medicine and director of research at the Humana Integrated Health Sciences Institute at UH. To better understand what was driving the healthcare disparities among minority populations, Adepoiu and her team of researchers analyzed electronic medical records from 55 individual clinics in six different counties of Texas.

The study found that, compared to whites, African Americans were 35 percent less likely to use telehealth, and Hispanics were 51 percent less likely. The main reason for these disparities, according to the study, were due to accessibility to computers and Internet. For instance, only 66 percent of African American households and 61 percent of Hispanic households have access to broadband Internet, that’s compared to 79 percent of white households.

In addition, the study found that proximity to healthcare centers and age impacted the use of telehealth. Children and elderly adults were less likely to use telehealth services. Those closer in distance to their doctor were also less likely to use telehealth, according to the research. In addition, the severity of the health problem impacted the likelihood of telehealth use. Patients with more severe problems were more likely to visit a doctor in person than online.

According to the study’s authors, there needs to be an effort among health professionals to close the gap between minority and white populations.

"Clinics will need a technology support system," Adepoiu said in a statement. "A staff that conducts pre-visit device and connectivity testing with patients can be instrumental to helping patients maximize telemedicine as an access to care option.”