With the COVID-19 pandemic pushing more and more patients across the country to begin using telemedicine services, inclusivity has never been more important for the telehealth industry.
While telehealth is a breeze for many patients, eliminating the need to commute to a doctor’s office and the minutes (or hours) wasted in the waiting room, many existing telehealth services and technologies do not cater to the millions of people in the U.S. who speak little or even no English.
These issues are already showing up in the data, according to The Verge. “At one University of California at San Francisco primary care clinic, 14 percent of visits are usually from non-English-speaking patients. After the pandemic forced a switch to telehealth, that dropped to 7 percent.”
Accessing health care is tough enough for patients that don’t speak English. Stepping into a hospital or medical clinic can be anxiety provoking if the receptionist that’s greeting the patient fails to be understood. The COVID-19 crisis added additional layers of difficulty.
As coronavirus has spread coast to coast, health care providers rapidly changed the way their practices served patients, which for many physicians meant scheduling virtual telehealth visits in lieu of in-person appointments and telling patients they’d be available by text messaging and video chat.
Elaine Khoong, MD, MS, a general internist and assistant professor of medicine at UCSF based at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital told The Verge, “this was communicated to our patients, but it was really only being communicated in English.”
If this doesn’t seem like a big deal for the telehealth industry, it should be noted that recent census data shows that over 21 percent of the population ages 5 years and over speak a language other than English at home, and within that 21 percent are over 380 different languages ranging from Hebrew to Hindi.
A lack of focus on this topic could drastically exacerbate health inequalities, and that is the opposite of what many telehealth companies set out to do – which is to level the playing field and democratize access to quality healthcare, 24/7.
Industry stakeholders need to take this into account and adapt so that the telehealth industry of the future is an inclusive one.