Ending the digital divide
If you told Canadians that a significant proportion of their healthcare services would be delivered virtually a year ago, most would not believe you. For the vast majority, virtual care and digital health seemed like a remote and unlikely possibility. However, all of that changed with COVID-19. And while this rapid mobilization and uptake of virtual services has largely been celebrated, many have also been left behind.
For those communities that are underserved by the healthcare system, digital health solutions may further entrench barriers to care. “Not everyone has the required access or literacy to use a smart phone, laptop or tablet. Reliable, high-speed internet isn’t available to everyone either. As a result, virtual care runs the risk of further perpetuating and exacerbating healthcare inequities among groups of people who are already underserved by our current healthcare system,” explained Dara Gordon, a policy research coordinator with the Women’s College Hospital Institute for Health System Solutions and Virtual Care (WIHV) and co-chair of the Institute’s Equity Committee. This “digital divide” needs to be addressed, in order to strengthen our health system and work effectively towards greater health equity.
While the digital divide is particularly relevant today, it isn’t a new concern. In fact, WIHV has been raising it for some time. WIHV’s Equity Committee, in partnership with the University of Toronto’s Joint Centre for Bioethics (JCB), hosted a stakeholder symposium addressing the relationship between digital health, virtual care and health equity in September 2019. The symposium included clinicians, policymakers, healthcare leaders, researchers, technology companies and community members to discuss the realities of the digital divide in Ontario. The central themes of those discussions, as well as concrete policy action items are outlined in a new discussion paper.
“While our report was written prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, its recommendations offer relevant insights on the impacts that widespread implementation of digital health technologies are likely to have on equity-seeking groups. The report provides steps towards creating a more equity-enhancing health system in a world that is rapidly moving towards technology-enabled approaches to delivering healthcare, and we believe that the report is more relevant now than ever before,” said Shivani Chandra, WIHV research assistant and co-chair of the Equity Committee.
Together with the JCB, WIHV is hosting a webinar on digital health equity on September 23rd, 2020 at 4:00 – 5:30 p.m. The event is free but does require registration in advance. To learn more please visit: https://the-digital-divide.eventbrite.ca. To read the full report please visit: https://www.wchwihv.ca/our-work/publications.html