Telemedicine for patients with liver disease has made progress in recent years, but some key hurdles remain. Strategies that rely on patient ownership of mobile devices or reliable internet access will likely miss patients who have the greatest need for remote access.
This is one of the conclusions from a county-by-county study of access to liver specialty care and mortality, using data drawn from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Wide-Ranging Online Data for Epidemiological Research (WONDER). The study was led by Jacqueline B. Henson, MD, of the Division of Gastroenterology, department of medicine, Duke University, Durham, N.C., and published in Hepatology.
“Ultimately, no single telehealth strategy will be successful in all areas, and these will need to be tailored at the local and state level,” the authors wrote. “They will also depend on the persistence of policy changes enacted during the pandemic which made use and reimbursement for telehealth less restrictive.”
The researchers found that 69.5% of American counties had no gastrointestinal physicians. Moreover, 41.1% of counties were more than 100 miles away from a liver transplant (LT) center; 33.7% had no GI physicians and were more than 100 miles from a LT center. These categories represented populations of 48.8 million, 53.7 million, and 17.8 million. These counties had higher poverty rates, more unemployment, and lower educational attainment than did those that had GI physicians or were closer to LT centers. Distance from LT centers was associated with higher liver-related mortality (r = 0.24; P < .001) and density of GI providers (r = –0.12; P < .001).
Reduced access to specialty care for liver disease was also associated with decreased access to technology, including cell phones, smart phones, and internet service. Among counties in the highest death quartile and lowest access to care, 35.5% of households had no computer, 43.1% had no home internet, and only 19.2% of these had internet at broadband speeds.
“Use of platforms with lower internet speed requirements and that are compatible with mobile devices may help extend access, as could partnerships with local primary care and GI clinics,” they concluded. Further work should be done at the local and state levels to better understand the optimal strategies to reach their populations of need.
Missing ‘baseline ingredients’
Commenting on the study, Nancy Reau, MD, professor of medicine and chief of hepatology at Rush University Medical Center, Chicago, said that “anyone who takes care of vulnerable populations, whether elderly individuals or those who may be socioeconomically disadvantaged, realizes that we have to improve access to medical resources, and telehealth is certainly an attractive way of doing that.”
She added that a key message from the study is that attempts to improve access to disadvantaged populations, no matter how well-intentioned, are likely to provide the most benefit to those who have more resources than others. For example, not everyone has access to a smart phone or tablet: “Even if you have a tablet [or cell phone], you might have to go to the public library to get high speed internet, or you may not even have a public library. So, when something sounds like a great idea, such as expanding the academic footprint or access to integrative medicine through something like a virtual option, a lot of the individuals that you are targeting may not be able to engage,” said Dr. Reau.
For those working to expand access, it’s critical to get the perspective of underserved communities and remember that every patient is unique. Physicians may treat patients who are poor, or from disadvantaged areas, who nevertheless have successful telehealth visits. But that doesn’t mean everyone’s experience will be similar. “You can’t use those who have been successful in accessing telemedicine as an example for everyone else. Just because one person can do it doesn’t mean that everyone else can. Involving a practitioner or an advocate from the area that you’re trying to reach is imperative,” she explained.
The COVID-19 pandemic led to a big push for telehealth, and it may be tempting to believe that the transition to telehealth has been smooth. This study “demonstrates in a very granular way that a large number of Americans have no access to high-speed internet, or if they do, many don’t have access to the tools that would let them engage this way. You can’t make assumptions and use them to build a product,” continued Dr. Reau.
Innovative options are needed, such as working with primary care providers in rural or disadvantaged areas to setup pop-up hot spots where e-consultations could be performed. Working directly with broadband internet providers to set up access in specific locations for telehealth, or using products like Amazon Echo Show as a portal for telehealth, can also be tried. “Think about being innovative and recognize that these areas probably don’t have the baseline ingredients we thought they had,” suggested Dr. Reau.
The authors reported having no financial support. Dr. Reau has no relevant financial disclosures.