Doctor on telehealth visit with patient
(Credit: Yoshiyoshi Hirokawa/Getty Images)

Although racial/ethnic and socioeconomically disadvantaged populations were less likely to use telemedicine early in the COVID-19 pandemic, a new study finds that telemedicine offered a way for members of those groups — particularly assisted living residents with dementia — to stay connected with primary care providers, according to a study published in JAMDA, the Journal of Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine.

The authors said that it is the first study to examine racial and socioeconomic differences in telemedicine use among assisted living residents with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.

Although Black and Hispanic residents, and those living in assisted living communities that had a higher proportion of residents dually eligible for Medicare and Medicaid, were less likely to use telemedicine early in the pandemic, those differences in access did not persist as the pandemic continued. Researchers from the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry attributed initial low use to technological and financial barriers in resident access to appropriate devices and internet broadband or their preferences for in-person visits. As the pandemic progressed, however, the authors found that Black and dually eligible residents increasingly were more likely to access primary care via telemedicine.

Differences in primary care telemedicine use across assisted living communities narrowed over time, but they still exist, according to the study findings. The authors said that this finding highlights the need to better understand why barriers to telemedicine persist between communities.

“The effect sizes of our findings are modest-to-moderate, but their importance lies in showing that racial and socioeconomic differences in telemedicine use declined during the first pandemic year, although more so between individuals than between assisted living communities,” the authors wrote.

With the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023 extended some Medicare telehealth flexibilities through 2024. The authors said that their findings provide evidence in support of continuing the telemedicine policy to improve access to primary care for racial/ethnic minorities and for individuals of lower socioeconomic status living in assisted living communities.