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Telepsychiatry and the Digital Divide

  • Telepsychiatry and the Digital Divide
  • Iverson Bell, M.D.
  • Connecting with patients, and ensuring they can connect with their doctors, has always presented us with many challenges, even before the internet age. Since the widespread use of the internet began, and its use in medicine, there has been a growing digital divide within healthcare delivery.
  • The digital divide is often thought as the racial or socio-economic access to digital resources such as the internet. The lack of access also includes the older people of our population. Health care disparities are exacerbated by these factors.
  • More recently, telepsychiatry has been helping patients to connect with their doctors from a distance. So, while barriers still exist, this relatively new technology has started opening doors for many and increasing access to care.
  • However, as the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed, some patients may not possess the technology to connect with their doctor from a distance via live video. Still, other patients may possess the technology, but feel uncomfortable or unable to use the technology in a way that helps them to get the help they need. Low quality devices, lack of broadband access, and other barriers related to economics, diagnoses, and other issues, all contribute to the "digital divide."
  • Ways to mitigate these circumstances are to ask your patients some preliminary questions before engaging in telepsychiatry:
    • What type of technology does your patient have access to? Do they own a smart phone or another device that can help them to connect with you, and do they know how to use them? Many do not even have an e-mail address.
    • Does that device let them connect with you over video, and what is the quality of that video technology? Is audio-only telepsychiatry an option for them?
    • What sort of telecommunications plan does that patient subscribe to?
    • Does that patient have broadband access to even allow them to use this technology effectively?
  • Addressing the digital divide is a matter of health equity. While telepsychiatry increases access to quality care for many, there are still many barriers to overcome in the future.

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