When COVID-19 struck, it changed the way many of us sought out healthcare. Telemedicine skyrocketed in popularity. With a 63-fold increase in virtual care utilization in the first months of the pandemic alone, we’ve seen a big change in health care accessibility.
Remote monitoring and telehealth services make healthcare more readily available for more patients. However, we haven’t solved all the accessibility challenges of the healthcare industry. Affordability and discrepancies in service availability continue to create inequitable outcomes. For a more accessible system, we need to institute big changes fast.
Telemedicine is a great start when it comes to expanding the availability of care, but the future depends on solving these challenges in care accessibility through effective change.
Telemedicine is a good start
First, we’ll explore how telemedicine proves that creating more accessible care is possible in a short amount of time. When the pandemic began, not many people utilized this option for care. Now, it is a popular feature of the industry set to be a mainstay going forward. That’s because it offers a greater range of flexibility and convenience for doctors and patients alike.
People love telemedicine because it’s accessible. From the comfort of your own home, you can connect to a physician or a mental health counselor. These have been invaluable services in maintaining the health of our healthcare professionals as well as patients throughout the pandemic.
Everyone young and old benefits from access to a care provider from a device most adults carry with them often. Telemedicine services are even helping patients in areas in which the nearest clinic is dozens — or even hundreds — of miles away. If they can receive a strong enough signal to speak with a physician, rural patients now have much greater and more immediate access to care.
And yet, the popularity of telehealth is an example of the incremental innovation the healthcare industry thrives best with. With mobile apps and optimized patient portals, care is easier to access and understand for a whole new base of users, young and old. However, telemedicine is just a stepping stone on the path to more accessible care.
The healthcare industry needs real change in broad strokes to address the accessibility challenges that abound for millions of Americans. These challenges are real and in many cases devastating.
But other accessibility challenges abound
Many Americans are surprised to find out that the U.S. pays substantially more for healthcare than other comparable nations and yet the quality of care isn’t much different. Much of the reason for this is that the system is rife with inequalities — many of which stem from accessibility.
At a glance, one can see how the healthcare system in this nation is set up for inequalities to occur. Costs are exceptionally high unless an individual pays for private insurance or meets the qualifications of limited public programs (Medicare and Medicaid). Since insurance is typically tied to full-time employers, anyone not working a standard job is automatically at a disadvantage, required to then seek out insurance on their own.
Then, the biggest obstacles to equitable care fall within the following categories:
Healthcare costs are increasing all the time. From insurance premiums to ambulance rides, every service is going up in price. Then, the bill is then cycled through insurance providers and care institutions before making its way to the patient. What comes out is often not in the realm of possibility for the patient.
Average annual premiums for a family rose to $21,342 in 2020. Considering that the median household income for the same year was $67,521, many families undoubtedly spent up to a third of their income on healthcare.
Medical bills are the top contributing factor to bankruptcies in the U.S. for a reason. Should someone lose their insurance through job loss (9.6 million Americans lost their jobs when COVID-19 emerged), they often must rely on charity to avoid financial devastation in a medical emergency.
The fact that 44% of Americans don’t go to the doctor when they are sick or injured because of the cost is telling enough that the system is too unaffordable to be accessible.
Meanwhile, location plays another role in systemic accessibility problems in healthcare. The system isn’t up to the challenge of meeting individuals in rural communities where they are with the resources they need.
Rural patients are underserved by health services. For instance, 9.1% of the population lacks any kind of health insurance versus 8.4% of those within metropolitan areas. Often, individuals in these communities will go without a regular provider because there aren’t other options. Meanwhile, 13% of nonmetropolitan residents still lack access to the broadband internet they need for telehealth.
This illustrates how telehealth services aren’t a catch-all for care accessibility. Instead, we’ll need more substantive strides that address both costs and geographical discrepancies. Fortunately, through community and nursing advocacy, we can bring together patients, providers, legislators, and healthcare industry stakeholders to create more ethical and accessible solutions.
Changes we need for more accessible care
Facing rising costs, Americans are highly dissatisfied with the healthcare system. With 40% of consumers calling the industry “expensive,” it’s time to address what has become a barrier to a better life for many. Poor access to care translates to more expensive, chronic diseases. These are consequences we’ve seen disproportionately pushed onto minority communities.
To turn the healthcare industry toward a more accessible future, we need to implement some large-scale, systemic changes. These are a few that will help:
- A public option for health insurance for all Americans
- A single-payer healthcare system like Medicare for All
- Broader broadband outreach and education to support telemedicine services
- Renegotiated regulations and purchasing agreements
- Removal of employers as a partnered insurance provider
By reducing prices and expanding coverage to more people, these big-picture changes could transform our healthcare system. In the meantime, chatting with your doctor online is a good start.