I wouldn’t call myself a tech fanatic.
But there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t rely on it for just about every single aspect of my life.
From quickly communicating with friends, family, and co-workers… to ordering everything I need from my favorite stores… and even capturing lasting memories…
I can do this (and more) in the palm of my hand thanks to my smartphone.
We’ve become so reliant on technology, I sometimes take it for granted. I’m thankful that I have access to – and the ability to use – technology to navigate me and my family’s day-to-day lives. While I rely heavily on technology in my daily life now, not too long ago it was something I viewed as a luxury and not a necessity. Not because it wasn’t helpful, but because I had other priorities.
Thirteen years ago I was a single mother pregnant and surviving off of food stamps. Having the latest-and-greatest smartphone or tablet was simply not a priority for me. Technology was evolving faster than I could keep up, and I couldn’t afford the newest plan with the best coverage. I needed to focus on putting healthy food on my table and paying my rent and electric bill. Having a smartphone with an unlimited data plan wasn’t something I could always afford.
While most view having internet access, unlimited texting and calling, and a smartphone a necessity these days some are forced to view it as a luxury in the interest of paying for prescriptions, rent, food, etc.
I’m fortunate that my situation has changed, but many Americans still face this predicament!
In fact, science fiction author William Gibson epitomized today’s climate by once saying:
“The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
And the numbers bear that.
Today, more than a quarter of low-income Americans depend solely on their phones for internet access. And unfortunately, this means that millions of folks are forced to fork over much of their hard earned cash each month on phones and data plans just to stay connected.
In fact, a study led by the Alliance for Affordable Internet found that for nearly 2.5 billion people worldwide, buying the cheapest available smartphone eats into more than 30% of their monthly income.
That’s income that could be used for housing, food, clothing, and even savings.
And the same pattern is happening here in the U.S. According to 2020 figures from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, those in the lowest 20 percent of income earners spent $150 more a year on their cell phones than they did in 2016. The cost of connectivity represents more than half of what these households spent on electricity, and nearly 80% of what they paid for gas. As a proportion of household income, the lowest earners spent four times more on phones than high earners.
This means that millions of folks already struggling to make ends meet are financially strapped to stay digitally connected in a growing digital world.
And even for folks that can afford to stay connected, there’s the matter of education and ensuring that everyone understands how to use the technology they have and platforms available to them – a phenomenon called “Lower Tech Readiness.”
According to data from Pew Research Center, individuals with a lower income (38%) are more likely to have lower tech readiness than adults with middle (27%) or higher (22%) income.
Older populations are also vulnerable, with nearly 54% of 65-74-year-olds and 68% of those 75 and older considered to have lower tech readiness.
In other words, not being “tech-savvy” isn’t just tongue-in-cheek. It’s a harsh reality for millions of Americans and disproportionally affects our low income and elderly populations.
The world is sprinting towards digital services as a highly scalable and mass reaching solution, including the healthcare industry. Organizations across the healthcare industry have been investing billions into “digitizing” the user experience. Ranging from telehealth visits with primary care providers, ordering essential medications online, and engaging in preventive care are just a snapshot of the ways the industry is engaging their members through online platforms as a way to improve overall health outcomes.
Makes total sense to me. After all, we seemingly rely on technology for everything these days. So, why not use technology to manage our healthcare?
But as great as this growing use of technology and online access to healthcare is, could it be widening the gap in health disparities among our marginalized communities?
The millions of Americans who are unable to afford or understand the technology required to leverage these new solutions will continue to get overlooked as the industry puts more focus on further refining their digital services. If we don’t step back and provide just as accessible low-tech solutions, those left behind in the wave of new technology will simply never be able to keep up with the growing trend shift in healthcare.
My lived experiences as an economically disadvantaged Latina have enabled me to authentically advocate for others in need – including those who face technology access limitations. That’s why we must advocate for the positive impact that technology can have on healthcare outcomes, while also building solutions to create a more equitable health system. This includes traditional, less tech-reliant methods for those who are unable to embrace technology. By focusing on telephonic human connection, visual heavy health literacy print materials at varying reading levels, American Disability Act (ADA) friendly print and digital solutions, and USPS traditional mail correspondence, we can ensure that no member is left behind.
Pairing high tech solutions with lower tech options, like the above, help us ensure technology is not a barrier to improving a member’s health. Providing tech-equitable member engagement solutions alongside digital innovation ensures access to life saving health improvement programs and prevents further widening the gap.
Photo: carloscastilla, Getty Images