Two years ago, I don’t recall having ever heard the term “telehealth.” And, like most people, I had never participated in a remote visit with my doctor. But the need to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in health care settings led to a huge surge in telehealth and telemedicine — theoretically providing more convenient, safe, equitable, and inclusive access to medicine. Between the summers of 2019 and 2020, one health care information company states that insurance claims increased by an astonishing 6,000 percent.
However, as researchers are starting to look at this relatively new trend in medicine, the early data and results are beginning to tell a more complicated story.
Research from the last two decades has revealed that women are as much as 33 percent more likely to visit their primary care providers or other physicians, even when excluding visits related to pregnancy and obstetrical care. But this tendency may not translate well to virtual appointments. In a large study published last year, the authors reported that women are less likely to use video when utilizing telehealth services, opting instead to use phone services.
Why is that important?
Psychologists and research studies suggest that face-to-face communication is essential for understanding the nuance of language and the human experience. Body movements and facial gestures offer insights to the listener about what the speaker truly means or is saying about something. Another study on active listening revealed that we cannot do so through verbal communication alone. Nonverbal factors such as body movement and posture showing involvement, facial expressions, and eye contact are important aspects of active listening, which itself is a skill to be acquired. If women are more likely to utilize phone-based telehealth services, they are less likely to engage actively in conversations with their physicians, therefore decreasing the effectiveness of doctor-patient communications overall.
Furthermore, studies conducted on telemedicine have identified individuals who do not have access to high-quality health care already may not have the resources needed to utilize telemedicine. For example, lower income individuals were found to be significantly less likely to use video telehealth services. Marginalized racial and ethnic communities may also miss out on the benefits of telehealth. According to a national survey published in July, 71 percent of Black adults and 65 percent of Hispanic adults report having broadband internet access at home, compared with 80 percent of White adults. This may have the same detrimental effects on communication as discussed above. Afterall, using telehealth services requires access to a device such as a computer or a smartphone and internet access.
So, what can be done?
While there are some resources available for finding telehealth services and a little bit of research done on primary care telemedicine, resources need to be expanded for other areas of medicine. Much of the research focused on telehealth has not addressed gender-specific medical questions focused on issues such as family planning, homelessness, and breast cancer screening. Beyond postpartum depression care, psychiatric and mental health resources for women using telehealth are understudied and under-supported. Mental health suffered greatly with the appearance of COVID-19, and continuing to address mental health crises and issues for all people will improve overall well-being. After more research has been conducted with these specific focuses, we will be more prepared to assess the hope that telehealth holds to improve the health and well-being of women. In the meantime, here is a link to a page with more information about telehealth.
Telehealth and telemedicine hold the potential to revolutionize the health care industry for women and others. Even after this pandemic is more stable and under control, the increased accessibility to medicine that telehealth can provide may create lasting equitable changes for everyone. Those working multiple jobs may conveniently take a doctor’s appointment during a lunch break. Mothers at home with newborn infants may receive health care and mental health services from the comfort of their homes. These two examples highlight the promise telehealth provides for safe, equitable, convenient, and inclusive medical care. We need to make sure that telehealth lives up to that promise — for everyone.
Gillian is a junior at Timothy Dwight College studying Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology and Anthropology. Read more from Gillian on WHRY's blog: "Why Didn't I Know This?