As the COVID pandemic unfolded, both healthcare and our educational systems pivoted quickly to a digital model of providing services. These digital touchpoints that are patient-facing, encompass patient portals and mobile health apps. Moreover, these modalities are an additional method for sharing information, as well as a means of providing a front end for telehealth services.
Unfortunately, these technology-driven activities are underutilized in underserved populations. The leading factors for this situation are poor technology access, lack of digital health literacy, and the design of the application themselves. If there is limited to low availability to computers, internet access, or broadband, the utilization of digital solutions becomes prohibitive. Even if one has access to a device, they also need support to ensure they understand how to operate it. Likewise, the idea of just handing out devices or listing public locations where someone can access a device only goes so far without the required digital literacy that must accompany the device itself. Although these educational supports reside within the apps and accessories themselves, they are not helpful if they are not accessible as the result of the underlying issue regarding comprehension of the device’s access and utilization. Consequently, assistance is required to help understand how to navigate the new technology. And, it is crucial to remain cognizant that these same concerns apply to the elderly and disabled.
The actual composition of the tools may also create barriers. Currently speaking, application design is created more for the tech-savvy consumer and not the neophyte of the tech world. Unfortunately, this approach leaves numerous behind. This means there is a need to create different apps for different population types. Right now, we consider reading level, but this is only one small component of the problem. Furthermore, what is intuitive to one is not to another, especially if new users have an underlying demographic, such as age or economic standing, that leads to the tools and apps being less practical.
Considering all these points, if we are to rely more heavily on digital health tools we also need to consider access and comprehension as we may be increasing the health disparities gap if we are not careful. The more society relies on technology, the greater the need is to address these concerns. Thus, we are at the initial point of a brand new way of delivering services. Let us not leave those that are the most vulnerable behind. We need to identify and solve these issues at the outset to prevent disparities from occurring. Otherwise, “fixing” them on the back end will become a more significant challenge.