Does Telemedicine Transcend Disparities or Create a Digital Divide? Evidence from the COVID-19 Pandemic
23 Pages Posted: 14 May 2021
Date Written: April 26, 2021
We examine telemedicine utilization during the COVID-19 pandemic. Advocates have argued that telemedicine can overcome barriers in accessing healthcare and protect patients from contracting COVID-19. Rural and poor patients, for example, would not need to make expensive and time-consuming trips to healthcare facilities when using telemedicine. Conversely, telemedicine adoption may depend on broadband access and technology skills, which could create a digital divide and exacerbate disparities. We study these questions using data on virtual and conventional care from a large commercial insurer. Telemedicine utilization soared during the pandemic. We further find that telemedicine utilization was concentrated in urban and affluent markets. We attribute this to two factors. First, telemedicine use was correlated with broadband penetration. Second, telemedicine adoption was much higher for patients with an established healthcare provider relationship (i.e., received care in the same health system in the previous year). We also find that telemedicine utilization was lower among older patients and comorbidities; cohorts with the greatest risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19. Without further intervention, telemedicine could exacerbate existing health care disparities.
Note: Funding Statement: None of the authors have any sources of funding.
Declaration of Interests: None of the authors have any competing interests to declare.
Ethics Approval Statement: The University of Michigan IRB determined IRB approval was not required as the data cannot be tracked to a human subject, HUM00191241. The McGill Research Ethic Board approved this research, 21-05-026.
Keywords: Healthcare Disparities, Telemedicine, COVID-19 pandemic, Digital Divide, Healthcare IT
JEL Classification: I14
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation