Addressing the Digital Divide in Healthcare

All humans face a degree of vulnerability, but some experience the burden of more numerous or severe vulnerabilities than others. We can explain the extra burden that some face as special vulnerability. Special vulnerability can be temporary or permanent and can occur at any point in a person’s lifetime. It can arise from one or a combination of physical, psychological or social factors. It can happen to anyone at any time due to the mortal human condition.

There are a countless number of reasons why people can experience special vulnerability, but those related to healthcare access can be some of the most grievous. Access to healthcare has an inextricable impact on health including quality and quantity of life. Quality and quantity of life are basic needs that must be met before any other opportunities can be achieved or vulnerabilities overcome. This means that promoting healthcare access is essential for a well-functioning society and satisfies our moral obligations to protect those who, like us, are or may become especially vulnerable.

Promoting health care access involves studying and removing barriers to access. Barriers to healthcare access include, but are not limited to, transportation issues, access to specialty providers, access to ancillary services, language barriers, cultural barriers, and access to technology. While there are many factors that contribute to access, barriers to accessing technology are becoming increasingly prevalent and pressing for modern healthcare delivery in the United States. US health policy and innovation are moving toward a more technologically advanced healthcare delivery system, and many vulnerable patients have not been able to keep up. This means that technology-dependent communication messages can miss vulnerable populations that need them the most.

Health communication leaders can and should make sure that vulnerable populations get the health messages that they need. When vulnerable individuals face barriers to technology access, health communication leaders should develop integrated, multi-level approaches to communicate key health messages. This can include engaging the community by talking to community members, tapping into community resources, and using multiple media platforms. It can also include developing better tools for communicating with patients including shared decision-making and cultural competency.

Engaging the Community

1. Ask the vulnerable community. Talk to community leaders about effective ways to reach your vulnerable audience. Focus groups and one-on-one interviews with members of the vulnerable community can also elucidate community-specific needs.

2. Tap into community resources. There may be existing community resources that can be used to deliver your message. Find out if there are ways that you can synergize with community organizations to deliver your message.

3. Use multiple media platforms. If you are using technology to deliver your message, consider adding additional media platforms to your campaign. This could include the use of communication platforms like radio, television or community forums.

Tools for Communicating with Patients

1. Implement shared decision-making techniques. Train providers and staff on shared decision-making techniques. Through shared decision-making, staff and providers can learn about specific challenges that their vulnerable patients face and determine ways to address these challenges individually.

2. Engage in cultural competency. Incorporate cultural competency into your organization’s culture. Make sure that the organization’s executive and upper-level leadership are committed to cultural competency. In addition, providers and staff should be trained on cultural competency and incentivized to engage in culturally competent interactions.

Ultimately a collaborate, integrated and multi-level approach will get key messages to those who need them the most. Communication leaders should make a concerted effort to use these approaches and reach all who need essential health messages. The lives of the vulnerable depend on it.

Natalie Dick, MHA

About cayla.sebastian

I am a graduate student at Chatham obtaining my Masters degree in Communication. I am getting a concentration in health, so my interests involve health communication and the practices of health non-profits. I've done a lot of work to raise money and awareness for women's heart health and after I graduate would love to work for the MS Society or the American Heart Association. I do have a minor in English, so writing and reading are a passion of mine and I am very excited to have the opportunity to hone in on my skills.

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