Study Finds Lower Income Groups Less Likely to Benefit from Post Pandemic Telehealth

A study published by JMIR found that populations with lower income are less likely to benefit from telehealth after the COVID-19 pandemic. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of telehealth grew exponentially in order to reduce the spread of the virus in healthcare settings. While COVID-19 related restrictions continue to be lifted, telehealth will remain a major component of care for mental health. However, given the difficulties with current training requirements, technological advancements, and other impediments to effective use, telehealth may not be equally accessible after the pandemic.

In the study published by JMIR, the researchers sought to answer who is to benefit from post pandemic telehealth. Participation for the study was granted to 114 mental health professionals providing services to their clients using telehealth. Data was collected between January 2021 and April 2021 and consisted of various survey questions concerning therapist demographics, transitioning to telehealth, and practice environments among others. 

The results of the study showed the categories of clients who are most likely to keep using telehealth after the pandemic. These clients include Medicare beneficiaries, clients who identified with marginalized religious or spiritual identities, and young and older adult clients. The findings suggest that the older individuals and those with Medicare coverage benefited from legislative initiatives that led to waivers of restrictions and greater coverage of care from telehealth. For individuals who identify with marginalized social groups, the safety of seeking therapy online may be favorable. However, Further results found that therapists were less likely to continue using telehealth if they had a higher proportion of Medicaid-insured clients, or a higher proportion of couples and families on their caseloads, or when they had a higher proportion of clients from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. 

According to the researchers, their study sheds light on potential issues which hinder underprivileged groups’ access to telehealth such as technological challenges, lack of confidential space, and privacy concerns. These issues point to the need for structural reforms such as access to suitable housing, broadband internet, and childcare. Since Medicare and Medicaid began covering telehealth at the same time, it’s also likely that Medicaid-covered programs did not support treatment via technology further encouraging disparities. 

As we continue to lift COVID-related restrictions, telehealth will continue to be utilized in a post pandemic world. However, the research has found that licensed mental health professionals are less likely to continue the use of telehealth in cases involved with clients from underprivileged areas. The researchers of the study argue that the structural barriers of these individuals need to be addressed in order to reduce the disparities within telehealth services. If these issues fail to be addressed, those who were impacted the most by the pandemic are at risk of being abandoned.