October 1, 2021 at 5:00 am ET
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted almost every aspect of our lives and exposed fault lines across our health care system — including large disparities in access to care. But there is hope: If we can further expand the use of telehealth services, which has already increased dramatically during the pandemic, we can meaningfully increase health care access for unserved and underserved people across the country.
During the earliest and darkest weeks of the pandemic, telehealth quickly became a critical tool for physicians and patients who needed new ways to connect. It ensured essential procedures could move forward, preserved scarce personal protective equipment and helped slow the spread of the virus by decreasing nonessential visits to doctor’s offices and hospitals and expediting appointment times for those that could not be postponed.
At Boston Scientific, where I serve as chief information and digital officer, we saw this surge in telehealth adoption firsthand. For example, use of our AskAngie telehealth platform quadrupled in those first few months of the pandemic. AskAngie uses merged reality to support virtual proctoring of complex medical procedures. From equipment setup to mid-surgery guidance, the medical team and Boston Scientific experts can see the same visuals in real-time and use virtual hands to point to a patient’s anatomy. The platform was even used to assist in the first pacemaker implantation performed on a U.S. Navy ship, the Mercy.
It is also clear that telehealth is here to stay. A recent McKinsey & Company report found that use of telehealth services has now stabilized at about 38 times its pre-pandemic levels.
Looking beyond extraordinary situations like the pandemic, telehealth also has tremendous potential to help overcome barriers to care for unserved and underserved populations. For example, it improves access to care for lower-income workers, who often have the most difficulty taking time off for appointments, and rural workers who may have limited ability to travel long distances to reach their physician. It gives patients better access to information about their conditions, empowering them in discussions with their care providers. And it can encourage adherence to care plans by providing helpful reminders and notifications.
Unfortunately, our ability to expand access to telehealth is running into two fundamental barriers: inadequate broadband infrastructure and cost. Government estimates show that more than 35 percent of rural Americans and tribal communities lack access to broadband at acceptable speeds. At the same time, many lower-income urban populations simply can’t afford the broadband services available to them. This lack of broadband access and affordability is limiting the true potential of telehealth to reach vulnerable populations and widening already significant care disparities.
We know that telehealth won’t be a panacea. Some people are understandably hesitant to adopt telehealth, whether due to a lack of tech literacy, concerns about privacy or a general lack of trust in technology. And some treatments will always be better suited to fully in-person care. But we know that expanding access to broadband — and in turn, to telehealth — can improve overall access to health care for many who need it most.
Thankfully, some help may be on the way. The bipartisan infrastructure bill now working its way through Congress includes a $65 billion investment to “deliver reliable, affordable, high-speed internet to every household.” This investment, which has broad support in both political parties, including members from rural and urban districts, would be a game-changer for expanding broadband access in the United States.
Tackling this lack of broadband services will open the door for companies like ours to deploy more meaningful technologies that increase access to care and help close health care gaps. After all — having the most advanced technological innovation in the world doesn’t mean much if it can’t reach our own neighbors.
Jodi Eddy is senior vice president and chief information and digital officer for Boston Scientific.
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