Broadband internet proves a hurdle as telehealth services continue to rise in popularity

BOSTON — COVID-19 forced businesses in nearly every industry to shift overnight to a virtual model — including the health care system.

Medical consultations, physicals and check-ins were all brought online and now, almost two years later, it seems more people prefer it that way. Telehealth services are now being used at 38 times the level they were before the pandemic began.

But despite the positive feedback from patients, lawmakers and doctors alike are asking the same question: Can you conduct a proper virtual consultation — whether physical or behavioral — when the patient doesn’t have the proper equipment to log onto their appointment?

“Prior to the pandemic, we focused on barriers such as lack of transportation or inability to get time off work as major barriers to getting care,” said Dr. Ateev Mehrotra, associate professor of health care policy and medicine at Harvard Medical School. “The lack of internet access is a new barrier that many patients face in accessing care.”

Dr. Ateev Mehrotra

Telehealth services proved useful when treating minority and underserved populations, specifically Black and Latinx communities, who didn’t enjoy close proximity to clinics and doctors. Those demographics also proved significantly more susceptible to contracting COVID-19, further pushing ethnic minorities to virtual consultations.

“The digital divide disparately impacts poor communities and communities of color,” Michael Curry, CEO of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, said in a statement.

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