COVID-19 has exposed the structural barriers at the root of health disparities in the United States. This year’s Jaharis Symposium focused on the premise that while technological advances have the potential to revolutionize the delivery of health care, they also raise significant questions about who has access to these innovations and whether they are advancing the interests of the populations with the greatest needs.
As part of this symposium, Valarie Blake, a Professor of Law at the University of West Virginia, presented her research on telehealth in rural America with a focus on the Appalachian region. Professor Blake explained that the health status of Appalachians is near the bottom of America when it comes to health outcomes, such as poisoning deaths, diabetes deaths, HIV prevalence, and more. This is due in part to the many tangible and intangible barriers that people living in rural Appalachia face when it comes to healthcare, such as a lack of sufficient healthcare force, travel barriers, low health literacy, the normalization of poor health, and a general mistrust of medical professionals. Telehealth could be a solution to some of these barriers, Professor Blake explained, but it cannot and should not be the only option. Telehealth has the potential to address problems with transportation and provider shortages, but poor internet speed and coverage can bring more issues. Furthermore, the advent of telehealth presents significant long-term challenges in areas such as quality of care, privacy, fraud, and equality. For example, safeguards are needed for long-term prescribing of controlled substances, many rural states lack sophisticated fraud detection forces, and the lifting of HIPAA enforcement, while meant to improve the speed of entry into telehealth, may be an unnecessary deregulation. For these reasons, Professor Blake argued that telehealth should be considered an additional service to in-person care, and not the sole tool in making healthcare services equally accessible.