By Michael Morgan
For many years, a substantial gap has existed between mainstream and underserved populations -- including minorities and individuals residing in rural or low-income communities -- when it comes to access to care and the latest healthcare technology advancements.
There are several challenges facing vulnerable populations, including limited transportation options, lack of health insurance coverage, poor health literacy, social stigmas and privacy concerns -- to name a few. These challenges can create large healthcare problems. In fact, a 2014 study found that an estimated 3.6 million Americans miss at least one doctor’s visit a year because of transportation issues, and underserved populations are at a greater risk for chronic disease.
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Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the spotlight on these inequalities has only shone brighter. A lack of access to resources has made it increasingly difficult for vulnerable populations to receive evaluation, testing and treatment for COVID-19 and they have been disproportionately affected by the virus.
Virtual care has the potential to help close the gap for underserved populations. Just as wireless phones leveled the playing field for people living in remote areas which lacked traditional telecommunications infrastructure, virtual care is leveling the playing field for patients by enabling access to care through a mobile device or laptop - rather than through a traditional brick and mortar doctor’s office. However, in order to ensure all patients have permanent access to care and improve health outcomes for individuals in underserved communities, we must equip our health systems and providers with the technology to treat patients regardless of where they are.
Reducing the gap in real-life: Telehealth in North Carolina clinics
The North Carolina Association of Free and Charitable Clinics (NCAFCC),a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the health and well-being of the uninsured and underinsured in North Carolina, has addressed this issue head-on. Comprised of 68 member clinics and 87 clinic sites throughout the state, NCAFCC serves under the mission that the medically underserved should have access to affordable, quality healthcare.
Prior to COVID-19, only a few of its clinics were leveraging telehealth. When COVID-19 hit, the need for direct primary care via telehealth increased significantly and Randy Jordan, Chief Executive Officer, NCAFCC knew immediately that the clinics needed a safer, more efficient way to keep both patients and providers safe. NCAFCC instantly began training several of its member clinics who wanted to participate. Within just two weeks, NCAFCC had around 40 member clinics fully trained and actively engaging in telehealth.