As the novel coronavirus pandemic swept the country last year, hundreds of thousands of patients turned to telehealth in order to continue accessing care while remaining as safe as possible.
Telehealth was held up as a "panacea," said Adaeze Enekwechi, a board member at the Public Health Institute and the Alliance for Health Policy, at the final installment of the American Telemedicine Association's EDGE policy conference on Tuesday.
"And the first thing that occurred to me was, 'There's no way this is a panacea for everyone or everything,'" Enekwechi said. "We just have to be honest about that."
Indeed, as panelists pointed out, although telehealth has made some strides in addressing health access disparities, it has also exacerbated others.
"There's still a have and have-not system when it comes to broadband," said Mignon Clyburn, former commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission. And when people don't have access to quality Internet, she added, "that further hampers their access to quality telehealth care."
To that end, several of the groups represented at the conference announced the launch of the Telehealth Equity Coalition, which is aimed at advocating for greater access to virtual care.
The coalition, composed of the ATA and the Health Innovation Alliance, along with Hims & Hers, Adaptation Health, the National Health IT Collaborative for the Underserved, and other major players in the space, will take a data-driven approach to identifying opportunities and advocating to improve telehealth policy.
"If there was ever a time to address digital equity, it's now," said Amy Sheon, president of Public Health Innovators.
Panelists noted that health disparities go beyond medical care alone – that housing, transportation and, of course, connectivity can play major roles in an individual's wellbeing.
"I hope to see a broader conversation about the intersectionality of some of these," said Enekwechi. "How do all of these interact?"
"Broadband is a super-determinant of health," said Clyburn. "We wasted a lot of time debating whether broadband was a necessity, but we should have been addressing wide affordability and adoption gaps."
"The Internet is a must. Connectivity is a must. Whatever our recalibrated new normal will be, it will not be what we saw pre-pandemic," Clyburn continued.
And infrastructure alone will not be enough, Clyburn said. "You can have all the fiber in the world at my doorstep, but if I can't afford it, then I will never be connected."
"We need to have serious conversations about how we narrow this divide," she said.
She stressed the importance of centering what communities need in the conversation – not to go into a situation with preconceived notions about the best next steps.
"We need to be in a listening mode," she said. "We need to put our egos in check, but if we do so, everybody's objectives will be realized. I cannot emphasize how important that is."
As policymakers and advocates move forward toward equity, Clyburn reiterated: "Forever and always put communities first."