USDA Research Shows Telehealth Usage Trends Among Urban and Rural Populations

Original Source: Center for Connected Health Policy

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) published an article this month comparing telehealth use trends between rural and urban populations. The research uses data collected from the July 2015 U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey which included questions regarding the use of telecommunications.

Researchers divided telehealth activities into three categories:
1. Online health research—Personal research related to health such as the use of websites including WebMD
2. Online health maintenance—Using internet-connected technology to make appointments, examine and maintain medical records and accounts, pay medical bills, and communicate with health providers and staff
3. Online health monitoring—The use of internet-connected devices such as alert devices and monitoring implants.
The research shows that overall, rural populations consistently engage in telehealth activities less frequently than urban populations regardless of other factors, including level of educational attainment, household income, and employment status. However, in some instances, these other factors appeared to more strongly predict the use of telehealth than rural-urban residency. As an example, rural residency appeared to only marginally influence the use of online health research which was more strongly determined by level of educational attainment. When factoring by level of education, rural populations appeared to conduct online health research only slightly less than their urban counterparts.

Engagement in online health maintenance and monitoring was more greatly influenced by rural-urban differences than was engagement in health research. The article expresses that this may be due to the slower uptake of telehealth technology among rural providers and less access to broadband services as both maintenance and monitoring are dependent upon provider availability and insurance coverage, whereas research is initiated by the individual. Additional factors that strongly predicted the use of online health maintenance or monitoring included household income and type of employment, which is likely related to the associated costs of the necessary technology. This is especially true for online health monitoring which was mostly affected by income and rural-urban residency.

The consistently lower rate of telehealth usage among rural populations is consistent with the rural-urban gap in health care access. Income and education were large factors determining the rates of online health maintenance and monitoring among both rural and urban populations. Although in-home broadband access was not indicated as a significant factor for rural or urban populations in 2015, the article remarks that lack of broadband access may become a larger barrier among rural populations alongside increased provider adoption of more advanced telehealth technology if there is little change in broadband access among rural residents.

The full article is available online and is published in the USDA Economic Information Bulletin.