Is broadband access a public health issue?

Ari Howard

Nov 9, 2021 — 3 min read

Unknown to many, universal digital literacy is one of the most important preventative healthcare steps our society can take.

Woman using computer while holding a baby

While the healthcare industry becomes increasingly digital each year, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated our society’s reliance on telehealth in a way that could never have been foreseen. From just 2020 to 2021, the use of telehealth increased from 9% of Americans to 36%, according to a recent J.D. Power study.

Digital tools are now used for nearly every aspect of life and many Americans are struggling to keep up. There are now health apps, patient portals, mental health resources, applications for housing, employment and assistance programs that all require internet access. Each one of these sectors of life greatly affects one’s health, making digital literacy a core component of preventative healthcare. 

Doctors and public health experts explained in the Nature Partners Journal for Digital Medicine, 

Digital literacies and Internet connectivity have been called the ‘super social determinants of health’ because they address all other social determinants of health.

Digital inclusion as a social determinant of health

In other words, if a household struggles to access the internet regularly, it is also likely they struggle with maintaining their health. 

The digital divide

Despite digital literacy and broadband access becoming so essential for participating in society and accessing healthcare, hundreds of millions of Americans still do not have high-speed internet and other essential digital tools.

For instance, Microsoft estimates that 42 million Americans lack internet access and 157.3 million Americans lack high-speed broadband access (at least 25 Mbps). Considering average internet speeds in the U.S. are 224 Mbps as of May 2022, the fact that over 150 million Americans lack broadband speeds demonstrates just how wide the digital divide truly is. 

Low-income and elderly individuals among the most affected

Unsurprisingly, low-income households are the demographic most affected by the digital divide. According to the Pew Research Center, only 30% of households earning $30,000/yr. or less own a smartphone and most of these households share one smart device with multiple members. An even smaller percentage own a laptop. For this reason, the ability to regularly access the internet – and to do so privately – is incredibly challenging for low-income families. 

In addition to low-income families, elderly and rural residents face the most obstacles with navigating the emerging telehealth industry. According to a survey from the Bipartisan Policy Center, for instance, 42% of older adults and 35% of rural residents reported having challenges accessing high-speed internet. 

In fact, as healthcare has grown increasingly digital, patient satisfaction has declined. A total of 15% of Americans surveyed by J.D. Power reported that their greatest dissatisfaction with the telehealth services they received was due to confusing technology requirements. 

How digital inclusion can improve public healthcare

Digital inclusion needs to become a part of the conversation when considering public health. Digital inclusion in the telehealth world means having access to affordable broadband service, to a computer and to digital literacy training. With these three needs being met, all members of society should be able to make online appointments, attend virtual doctor appointments and access online resources. 

The authors of Digital inclusion as a social determinant of health explained

The costs of equipping a person to use the Internet are substantially lower than treating health conditions and the benefits are persistent and significant, making the efforts to improve digital literacy skills and access valuable tools to reduce disparities.

Digital inclusion as a social determinant of health

For this reason, policy makers should consider covering digital inclusion funding in the public health budget. With the emergence of telehealth, the digital component of healthcare must now be a major conversation for public health policy.  

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Illustration of a father and daughter in a living room. The father is sitting in an armchair and reading a newspaper, and the daughter is playing with a toy on the floor.
Ari Howard

Written by:

Ari Howard

Associate Writer, Broadband & Wireless Content

Ari Howard is a staff writer Healthline and spent two years as a writer on the Allconnect team. She specialized in broadband news and studies, particularly relating to internet access, digital safety, broadband-… Read more

Robin Layton

Edited by:

Robin Layton

Editor, Broadband Content

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