Bridging the Digital Divide: The Pursuit of Equitable Health Care Access in Rural America

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In many rural areas of America, limited access to health care is coupled with scarce broadband internet availability, making it challenging for residents to benefit from the growing trend of online health services.

A recent study from the University of Cincinnati emphasized the unequal access to digital technology, which could further expand the health care gap. The research discovered that socially vulnerable communities in the US face increased obstacles to appropriate health care, reside in areas with fewer health care resources, and have less access to high-speed internet.

This month, the findings were shared at the American Association of Geographers’ annual conference in Denver. In response to the growing health care access gap, the Biden Administration announced a $73 million investment in outreach grants this month to make affordable high-speed internet more widely available to Americans. This initiative aims to address disparities that have arisen during the COVID-19 pandemic when health care providers started offering more services online.

UC researchers carried out a county-level data visualization and spatial analysis to evaluate the relationship between digital disparities and health care access across the contiguous United States. Diego Cuadros, a UC epidemiologist and study author, explained that patients require access to high-speed internet, computers or smartphones, and technological familiarity to comfortably use these systems and benefit from the expanding shift towards telemedicine and online health services.

Cuadros’ previous research revealed disparities in easy access to health care throughout the US, with many of these areas also having limited access to digital technology like high-speed internet. Cuadros emphasized that telehealth won’t be equally beneficial for everyone and will be more useful for those who already have good access to health care. He warned that as reliance on technology grows, the digital divide will only widen.

Cuadros, an associate professor at UC’s College of Arts and Sciences, leads UC’s Digital Epidemiology Laboratory and collaborated with Claudia Moreno, an assistant professor of physiology and biophysics at the University of Washington. Cuadros said the pandemic has been a tipping point, making digital technologies an essential part of various aspects of life, including education, relationships, and health care.

Although the US is a global telecommunications leader, it doesn’t rank in the top 20 nations for per capita wireless coverage, as per a 2023 Statista survey. Moreno attributed this to the country’s large geographical size and found it surprising to see a strong correlation between lack of broadband access and socioeconomic and health care vulnerability in certain regions. She emphasized the need for policies and programs to address this institutionalized inequity and improve access within vulnerable communities.

Key Takeaways in a Nutshell – Health Newstrack

– Rural areas of America face limited access to health care and broadband internet, making it difficult for residents to benefit from online health services.

– The Biden Administration is investing $73 million in outreach grants to provide affordable high-speed internet access to more Americans in response to these disparities.

– UC epidemiologist Diego Cuadros emphasized the need for high-speed internet, digital devices, and technological familiarity for patients to effectively utilize telemedicine and online health services.

– The digital divide is expected to widen as reliance on technology increases, making it crucial to create policies and programs that increase access within vulnerable communities.

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