Income, Race Among Factors that Influence Telehealth Literacy

A recent study found that several patient demographics, such as income, race, and location of residence, correlate with telehealth literacy and influence patient access to care. 

 By Mark Melchionna

March 01, 2023 – Published in the March Issue of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, new research provided evidence surrounding the demographic characteristics, such as income, race, and area of residency, that may influence telehealth literacy, as well as access to care.

Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery is the medical journal of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.

The journal recently published findings on telehealth literacy and the various patient demographics that might impact them. The demographic characteristics noted in the study mainly related to income, race, and residency.

Dig Deeper

Overall, researchers found that low-income, Black, and rural residents were more likely to have low telehealth literacy.

“Our study finds that patients who fall into specific socioeconomically disadvantaged groups are at the highest risk of being underserved by telehealth services,” said senior author Kavitha Ranganathan, MD, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, in a press release. “The findings may help in targeting at-risk communities for interventions to increase telemedicine literacy and access.”

To better understand demographic factors impacting telehealth literacy and support targeted interventions, researchers conducted the study using data from a 2019 Pew Research Institute survey on internet and technology use. They created a measurement known as Technology Literacy Index (TLI), which included three factors: access to the internet, access to a smartphone device, and comfort level with technology.

Using TLI, the researchers were able to classify telehealth literacy across the nation. From their research, they found that independent risk factors such as widowed marital status, less than a high school education, age over 65, disabled employment status, lack of college degree, and Black people were associated with a low TLI.

Also, people in rural areas were thrice as likely to have low TLI compared with urban areas. Not only that, but areas with the highest proportions of Black residents were more likely to have low telemedicine literacy versus areas with the lowest proportions of Black residents.

These findings throw into sharp relief the disparities facing underserved groups, providing healthcare stakeholders with insight into policies that may assist those battling low TLI to help expand care access.

“[I]insurers, policymakers, healthcare providers, and patient champions may be able to target specific communities for interventions to increase telemedicine literacy and access,” said Ranganathan and co-authors in the study. “As plastic surgery and healthcare more broadly is becoming increasingly dependent on the ability to utilize technology, appropriate efforts to mitigate and prevent adding to pre-existing healthcare disparities are critical.”

Similarly, a study published in August 2022 found that factors such as health literacy and area deprivation index influenced the type of telehealth that patients used.

After reviewing thousands of telehealth visits and patient demographics, researchers found that those with a lower brief health literacy screen score and a higher area deprivation index, indicating low socioeconomic status, were more likely to participate in audio-only telehealth visits.

Thus, while telehealth can provide many benefits, there are also accessibility factors associated with its use that must be addressed, researchers concluded.