How the Coronavirus Pandemic is Accelerating the Telemedicine Industry and Affecting Women’s Health
By Varsha Rao*
Recent data suggests that women are being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Women are more likely to work in the service industry, get paid at or below minimum wage, take on a disproportionate amount of caregiving responsibility and are generally more financially vulnerable than their male counterparts. Now that millions of women are losing their jobs and health insurance coverage, COVID-19 introduces a significant strain on the close relationship between access to reproductive health and women’s economic opportunity.
Moreover, the conversation around how COVID-19 has led to the proliferation of telemedicine and the reimagination of the “house call” rarely focuses on women and the challenges they’re facing in making sure they have access to their essential health needs. The pandemic has significantly impacted women’s access to contraception and other sexual and reproductive health services.
Even prior to COVID-19, we often asked women to navigate a complicated, uphill battle to take charge of their reproductive health, despite the fact that when women do have access to contraception, they are much more likely to avoid unintended pregnancies, seek higher education, and increase their earning potential over their lifetime. Considering more than 19 million women in the U.S. live in contraception deserts, we shouldn’t be surprised that nearly half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended, providing us with the distinction of having one of the highest unintended pregnancy rates among developed countries.
Now that women are facing cancelled appointments while being asked to shelter in place for the foreseeable future, COVID-19 is magnifying existing barriers to women’s healthcare while simultaneously introducing new roadblocks.
Telemedicine offers a safe, effective and scalable solution to birth control access while social distancing. Telemedicine would enable women to privately connect with a licensed healthcare provider and get their medication delivered, all on their own time and without needing to leave their home. Telehealth also alleviates the burden on our healthcare system, making sure our healthcare workers are focused on urgent health needs that require in-person care and treatment. Many telemedicine providers are seeing record-high interest and demand from new patients over the last several weeks.
While the telemedicine industry has taken leaps and bounds over the last few months to help fill in the gaps of an overwhelmed healthcare system, the benefits of telemedicine are not equally available to everyone due to a complicated patchwork of policies and regulation. In order to reap the full benefits of telemedicine, policymakers should consider addressing the following roadblocks:
Healthcare providers should be able to use their clinical judgment to determine how they can best provide care to their patients. The majority of states allow medical professionals to determine whether it’s appropriate to treat their patients with real-time communication (video chats and phone calls) and non-real time communication (secure messaging).
Video consultations are a luxury item for some. Over 21 million Americans lack access to high-speed internet, and poor and rural communities are least likely to have broadband at home. When states require live video for telemedicine consultations, they may be contributing to healthcare inequity, rather than addressing the access gap.
Access to healthcare should be unconditional, no matter who you are or what your employer believes. The Supreme Court ruling on July 8, 2020, allowing employers to opt out of birth control coverage, could result in thousands of women losing contraceptive coverage from their employers.
Women should be allowed to stock up on all of their essential medication, including birth control. States and insurance providers place different restrictions on how many packs of birth control women can receive at a time. We should allow women to decide how much medication they would like to have at one time, rather than asking them to put themselves at risk and return to the pharmacy every month.
States should allow medical providers to practice care across state lines. The process to practice telemedicine is anything but straightforward. While some states have been rapidly expediting the approval process, we should consider making it as easy as possible for providers to reach patients that need their care and guidance – including across state lines.
Telemedicine has already proven to be a valuable and even necessary resource throughout this pandemic. We need to ensure that everyone, including women, can easily and affordably take advantage of the virtual house call.
*Varsha Rao is the CEO of Nurx, a leading online provider for birth control.
The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of WAF editors.