Digital Health Literacy and Bridging the Digital Divide

By Elena Muller, MPH

In a recent blog, I discussed the importance of health literacy, and why it’s essential for good health outcomes. I explored what health literacy is, why there is disparity, and how telehealth can help. 


The goal of this blog is to explore how and why telehealth success and digital health literacy–"the ability to seek, find, understand, and appraise health information from electronic sources and apply the knowledge gained to addressing or solving a health problem” go hand in hand. We’ll discuss tips for patient education, why it is essential, and dive into the relationship between digital health literacy and the digital divide, the barriers that prevent patients from accessing telehealth services.

The barriers constituting the digital divide include lack of access to technology, inadequate internet connectivity, and low digital literacy. Today, we’ll focus on how improving digital literacy is one step towards bridging the digital divide.

Bridging the Digital Divide by Promoting Digital Literacy

The National Center for Education Statistics found that 16% of US adults are not digitally literate—adults who are not digitally literate are, on average, less educated, older, and more likely to be Black, Hispanic, or born outside of the US. Recent findings from the University of California San Francisco found that it’s probably that 1 in every 4 Americans may not have access to technology, access to the internet, or the digital literacy required to participate in virtual care.  

As telehealth use skyrocketed this past year,  the digital divide was exposed. The digital divide is a threat to health equity. As an industry, we have an opportunity (and an obligation) to address the divide. One of the largest steps towards improvement will be building patients’ digital literacy so they can engage in telehealth successfully. 

learning how to do blood pressure reading

3 Steps to Build Patient Digital Literacy:

  1. Provide patient with educational materials outlining what to expect from the program, what to expect from the telehealth team, and what is expected from the patient regarding engagement with the technology.
    • Be very clear with the patient about what they are expected to do every day with the telehealth technology—for example, are they supposed to record their biometrics and symptom surveys daily? 

  2. Offer translation services for educational materials. 

  3. Prior to enrollment, confirm a technology plan and discuss potential barriers such as internet reliability, understanding of the telehealth technology’s functionality, and how to contact the vendor’s technical support if needed.
    • Explain how the product  works—this includes an overview of the features of the product  (your telehealth technology partner will be able to help you here).

 

A Key Pillar of Telehealth & RPM Success = Patient Education 

Positive outcomes with telehealth and patient education go hand-in-hand. Patient education is absolutely essential for a patient to be successful with the telehealth program. This includes education both before the telehealth program begins, and continuous education during the patient’s enrollment in the program. 

Once the patient is enrolled, the onus falls on the providers and the vendor to ensure the patient is getting the most out of the telehealth program. This includes continued education on functionality, as well as conversations about expected outcomes and how the patient can reach them. Every patient requires different amounts of support and training, there is not a one-size fits all approach to patient education. By building patient education as a key pillar in telehealth operations, digital literacy will improve, ultimately helping to close the digital divide. 

Digital Health Literacy is a Social Determinant

Many healthcare leaders have discussed how the pandemic accelerated their digital strategy by a decade. Innovation that previously took years happened in months as robust digital strategies were built. Many, many, patients have benefited greatly from the shift to telehealth, while others have been put at a disadvantage. The challenge of bridging the digital divide, while cumbersome, is one that can be overcome. By putting resources towards providing access and opportunities to those who are disadvantaged, progress towards equity can be made.

Promoting digital health literacy is one of the many strategies that must be embraced to overcome the divide. By including digital health literacy strategies into every telehealth initiative, the positive impact of telehealth can be experienced by populations who historically have had the hardest time accessing it. 

Healthcare leaders, as well as federal, state, and local stakeholders, should advocate for advancement in health equity by addressing digital technology, literacy, and coverage.

Next Up: Telehealth and the Social Determinants of Health

Tags: Patient Engagement

Subscribe to HRS Telehealth and Remote Patient Monitoring Blog

Subscribe to the HRS Blog