The third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing many cities and states to revert to strict social-distancing measures in an effort to once again slow the spread of the virus. As such, now more than ever, it is critical to ensure access to vital telehealth services for vulnerable Americans, including members of the LGBTQ community, particularly the elderly, veterans, and those living in rural communities.
In an effort to bring light to this important issue, on Wednesday, LGBT Tech’s Chris Wood took part in a panel discussion hosted by the Health Innovation Alliance to discuss the increased need to make telehealth services as widespread and available as possible in order to keep underserved communities connected to the care and support they need, and to address the overall barriers that are in place that prevent universal adoption of this important service.
While we should celebrate the fact that more than seventy percent of health care providers nationwide offer telehealth services, that does little good when so many in our country still lack basic access to the high-speed broadband networks required to fully realize the potential that telemedicine has to offer.
Sadly, more than 50 million rural Americans—including many LGBTQ+ individuals—fall into that category, thanks to a digital divide that has seen rural communities increasingly left behind in the digital dust. As Chris noted throughout the panel discussion, without sufficient access to high-speed internet, the health care concerns of at-risk communities will only continue to grow.
That can have a detrimental impact on the health and wellbeing of rural Americans, especially given the limited access to high-quality, comprehensive health care they already face. Rural patients must already travel longer distances, endure longer waiting times, and contend with a growing physician shortage that disproportionately impacts rural communities.
For the LGBTQ+ community, health care access comes with additional complications that extend beyond geographical restrictions. Many LGBTQ+ individuals struggle to find a doctor they can trust, particularly when it comes to disclosing their sexual orientation or identity. As a result, some 18 percent of LGBTQ+ Americans simply avoid going to the doctor’s office altogether out of a fear of being discriminated against, putting them at greater risk. For these people, expanding access to telehealth could provide a life-saving link to care that they may not otherwise have.
LGBT Tech has long advocated for policy and technology solutions that will increase broadband access as well as expand telehealth opportunities for the LGBTQ community, which is one of the reasons our organization celebrated the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) decision to advance a $100 million Connected Care Pilot Program. Once up and running, the program will help support telehealth access for low-income Americans, including those LGBTQ+ individuals living in rural communities.
Thankfully, the Connected Care Pilot Program seems to be moving forward as the application window just opened earlier this month and will stay open through December 7. Particularly for LGBTQ+ Americans living in rural or underserved communities, this program can help increase access to health care professionals who have experience with LGBTQ+ health issues and who will not discriminate or disclose based on sexual orientation, which is a particular cause of concern for LGBTQ+ individuals in small tight-knit rural communities.
Even absent a global pandemic, increasing broadband access and expanding telehealth services for more vulnerable populations is a hugely important cause for LGBT Tech and the LGBTQ+ community. However, in light of the impending third wave of COVID-19 hitting our nation, the urgency to do so is even greater.
Congress must come together in a bipartisan fashion to help ensure universal broadband access becomes a reality sooner rather than later. Only by investing in broadband deployment nationwide will all Americans be able to benefit from the same innovations in telehealth and telemedicine that can lead to healthier, happier, and fuller lives.