Updated: Aug 3
It would be hard to overstate the importance of high-quality healthcare for people of all ages, but this care is all the more crucial for children, whose brains and bodies are in critical stages of development. Yet millions of American families live in medical deserts, particularly low-income families in underserved communities. As a result, their children face greater barriers to essential healthcare services and health education. Fortunately, telemedicine offers a practical way to remove some of these barriers and offer more equitable access to healthcare.
What Is Telemedicine?
Simply put, telemedicine is the remote or virtual facilitation of healthcare appointments using video conferencing platforms or audio-only phone calls. Although many healthcare centers offered secure digital portals for sharing information well before 2020, it was the COVID-19 pandemic that caused them to extend online services to include actual medical appointments.
During the pandemic, medical facilities pivoted to using telemedicine as a way of protecting care providers, patients, and communities from the risk of COVID-19 infection. They used encrypted versions of commonly used platforms like Zoom and Google Meet to keep patient information secure. However, health centers continue to use telemedicine even as the pandemic becomes less of a threat to public health, in part because it helps to address other barriers to patient healthcare access.
Here are some major benefits of telemedicine for families and children in underinvested rural, urban, and suburban communities.
Access to Primary Medical Care in Healthcare Deserts
The federal government has labeled 80% of rural US communities—in which 20% of all Americans live—as medically underserved. Reaching primary medical centers is also a challenge in underinvested urban and suburban areas, where the nearest available may still be far enough away to add significant logistical difficulty to keeping appointments. Although telemedicine can’t facilitate physical exams or laboratory tests, it can help families and their children accomplish the following:
Determine if they need to be seen in person for preventive or interventional care
Learn how to monitor their own health and vital signs
Complete follow-up appointments in which they can communicate any improvement or worsening of a condition as well as learn about recovery and specific symptoms to watch for
Receive general education about a healthy lifestyle and the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for common given injuries and illnesses
Establish and maintain relationships with pediatricians and other care providers
Get prescription refills authorized and discuss dosage adjustments as needed
Increased Access to Healthcare Specialists
It can be even more difficult for children in low-income communities and healthcare deserts to get care from life-saving medical specialists like cardiologists, oncologists, and surgeons. Although patients will still need in-person appointments for medical tests and procedures, they can reduce the number of trips they have to make to a facility by using telemedicine for the following:
Consultations (getting information that can help families decide if their children need specialty care and which treatments to pursue)
Post-procedure follow-up appointments
Education about patients’ specific injury and illness
Alternatives to Broadband Barriers
Lack of high-speed internet infrastructure and access has often been cited as a barrier to telemedicine in both rural and underinvested urban areas. However, in 2021, at least 29 states changed their legislation to allow audio-only telephone appointments. These are a useful alternative to video meetings in areas without broadband internet and for individuals who don’t own internet-ready devices or rely on limited data for internet use on their phones.
Eliminated Transportation, Fuel, Meal, and Childcare Costs
Each year during the pandemic and beyond, telemedicine saves families hundreds and even thousands of dollars in costs directly related to keeping in-person medical appointments. These include transportation and fuel costs as well as incidental expenses like on-the-go meals, depending on what time of day the appointment takes place and how long the round trip takes. Childcare costs are another consideration, especially for mothers with multiple children at home who cannot easily bring all of them to an appointment.