The healthcare system in the United States is notoriously complex and multifaceted. While the U.S. boasts cutting-edge medical technology and many of the world’s best and brightest physicians and professionals, access to these scientific advances and life-saving resources remains firmly behind a stratified paywall.
At this point, the average American lives paycheck to paycheck and would not afford an emergency expense, including an unforeseen medical cost. Millions of Americans are uninsured or underinsured, and even those who do receive significant coverage often struggle to afford medications, specialists, even routine appointments.
This alone would be enough to create a crisis, but this lack of access is compounded by existing inequality. In other words, those who are already marginalized and socially disadvantaged are hit the hardest by this lack of access.
There has been an ongoing national debate about addressing the various aspects of the U.S. healthcare system, which have been the most inefficient and harmful. While there is, of course, hope to be found in that discourse, the on-the-ground emergency nonetheless persists. Thus, more immediately implementable means of closing the access gap are being continually explored. One such means, which has exploded in use throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, is the use of Telehealth, or virtual care.
Telehealth is not perfect, and it does not come without barriers in its own right. For example, low-income individuals who do not own a computer or laptop may not find Telehealth a viable alternative to in-person appointments. Older adults who aren’t comfortable navigating computer and webcam use may also struggle.
That considered, however, for a significant number of individuals, Telehealth tangibly closes the access gap. Those who live in rural areas, which may or may not even have a local physician, typically find virtual care extremely helpful, even life-saving. The same can be said for those living with disabilities, particularly disabilities, which would make an in-person commute difficult. Overall, Telehealth is less costly and less confined to the 9-to-5 schedule, increasing patients’ ability to utilize services.
Healthcare is essential. All forms of care—emergency, long-term, preventative, and more—all play a role in public health: healing and helping people, saving and improving lives. Increasing healthcare accessibility is an issue of both social welfare and public health. The sooner it is addressed, all Americans will receive the healthcare they deserve regardless of socioeconomic status.
The increasingly widespread use of virtual care may not be a comprehensive, one-and-done solution for closing the access gap; however, it is a means of tangibly chipping away at it, changing healthcare—and lives—in the process.