A recent press release from the American Medical Association (AMA) outlines the AMA’s latest policy, aimed at bridging the digital divide. Below, we discuss their approach and the additional steps necessary to equitably leverage telehealth for all.

“The AMA believes that telehealth solution and service providers—in their design and implementation efforts—need to work directly with the populations their products are meant to help and serve. Culture, language, accessibility and digital literacy must be considered when designing telehealth functionality and content.”

The biggest lift for the industry will be pivoting quick digital fixes into long-term, accessible digital strategies. Zoom worked as a Band-Aid in the beginning of the pandemic, but it wasn’t built to be a HIPAA-compliant telehealth platform. Now, providers who haven’t moved to more comprehensive solutions will struggle to maintain virtual care efficacy as temporary solutions grow cumbersome in the long term.

In the same way, accessibility is best achieved when it is considered from the start. After-market modifications to existing systems don’t equate to a system originally designed to meet accessibility needs. These retroactive changes create inherent biases in the technology that are difficult to overcome. Technologies should be designed with a diverse team focused on creating an equitable experience.

“To spread the benefits of telehealth, the AMA will support efforts to design telehealth solutions to accommodate those with difficulty accessing technology – including seniors, vision-impaired patients and individuals with disabilities.”

Accessibility can’t be solved with a single accommodation. Accessibility means accommodating all experiences. Accessible digital solutions should include video remote interpretation (VRI) including signed interpretation for Deaf and hard of hearing individuals, compatibility with screen readers, large buttons and easy workflows, colors and design that meet accessibility standards, and more. Employing the best, most accessible solution for an organization may require a survey of the patient population to determine its unique needs.

“Telehealth has the potential to address longstanding health inequities, though equity-centric design and implementation will be needed to overcome inequitable resource allocation in underserved areas. In 2019, 25 million individuals in the United States did not have internet access at home, and 14 million did not have equipment capable of playing video—essential for two-way audio-video telehealth—such as a smartphone or computer.”

The digital divide is the next big hurdle for accessibility. It’s become very clear that the population that could most benefit from digital resources often does not have consistent access to them. While many take the prevalence of technology for granted, the reality is that Americans do not have equitable access to technology, and digital literacy varies wildly. A comprehensive digital strategy includes plans to reach patients who do not have smartphones or Internet access. The power of digital health is that is brings care to the patient, but to be truly accessible, virtual healthcare must meet the patient where they are, with the resources they have available, in an environment where they can clearly communicate and take charge of their health. Regardless of language, culture, socioeconomic status, or digital literacy, telehealth solutions should serve any patient that requires care.