To bridge the digital divide, national nonprofit offers free devices and internet

Approximately 11.7 million U.S. households do not have in-home internet access and approximately 5.5 million households do not have a computer, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s just the beginning of a deep digital divide in this country.

One big question in healthcare when it comes to the digital divide: How can people in these households get access to telemedicine? Virtual care can be a game-changer for people in rural communities and healthcare deserts. Even in urban centers where there are shortages of specialists.

A recent study by the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research found telehealth is nearly as effective as in-person primary care visits when it comes to addressing patient needs. However, the digital divide prevents millions of U.S. households from accessing these convenient and critical services at home.

Healthcare IT News sat down with Megan Steckly, CEO of Compudopt, a national nonprofit working to address this issue by providing families with free devices, internet connectivity and technology training, so more Americans have access to this fundamental healthcare resource going forward.

Q. Talk about the digital divide in the U.S. What does it look like, and how does it play into telehealth?

A. Since the launch of the internet in 1993, western society has advanced at an exponential rate. Thanks to smartphones, tablets, laptops, hotspots and home WiFi, today most people’s access to healthcare – including everything from health insurance to prescription refills to online therapy – is at our fingertips. For millions of Americans, though, the reality is not so convenient.

Approximately 11.7 million U.S. households do not have in-home internet access and approximately 5.5 million households do not have a computer, according to the U.S. Census Bureau 2022 ACS data. Several factors contribute to this, including socioeconomic status, geographic location and access to broadband infrastructure, as well as general education on the benefits of connectivity and digital skill building.

Without a device and reliable internet access at home, these households fall further and further below the poverty line, as pursuing education, applying for well-paying jobs, filing taxes, accessing online banking and more are beyond reach. This stark inequity is known as the digital divide.

Although the digital divide existed long before 2020, the shift to virtual work, school and healthcare during the COVID-19 pandemic deepened the issue even further and exposed just how vulnerable millions of Americans are when it comes to connectivity and digital access.

When physical offices closed, healthcare providers resorted to telehealth, making access to mental and physical care unattainable for those without devices or reliable internet.

The height of the pandemic and the years that followed proved that telehealth not only works, but it’s here to stay as a primary care source. According to a study from Kaiser Permanente, telehealth may be just as effective as in-person primary care visits when it comes to addressing patient needs. While the issue is deeply complex, the solution is clear: digital access results in healthier communities.

Q. Please talk about the mission of your nonprofit organization when it comes to telemedicine and the digital divide.

A. Compudopt is a national nonprofit organization with a mission to provide technology access and education to under-resourced youth and their communities. Founded in 2007, Compudopt has provided free devices, internet access, training and support to hundreds of thousands of individuals across 40 cities and 19 states, and we’re not slowing down any time soon.

We were founded on the belief that digital access and education are the means to true economic opportunity and mobility. Digital equity can be more of a reality for millions of Americans if we address its four fundamental components.

First, we work with individuals and corporate partners to refurbish gently used devices to the best industry standard and donate them to communities in need. Second, we work to bring high-speed internet into homes across the country.

Third, we load age-appropriate digital literacy games and resources onto each device to equip each user with education and information. Finally, Compudopt works with community partners, including schools, to offer classes that equip families with workforce-relevant skills to open doors to more opportunities and brighter futures.

Throughout our process, we work diligently to educate communities on the benefits of connectivity and how to take advantage of digital resources, like telehealth, that have a positive impact on both the immediate and forward-looking future.

We’re invested in bridging the digital divide holistically, which means we support our communities beyond device donation and free connectivity. Our community portal offers free tech support, resources and information on the Affordable Connectivity Program, as well as free or low-cost community services related to healthcare, food, housing and more.

As the link between digital equity and healthcare accessibility becomes more critical to community wellness, Compudopt is partnering with leading healthcare organizations to bring comprehensive solutions to families and individuals across the country.

Q. What have been the outcomes you have seen to date of your efforts to increase access to telehealth?

A. To date, Compudopt has impacted more than 317,000 individuals through free devices, free connectivity and free digital literacy training.

We’ve donated 89,000 computers, have helped connect more than 6,200 households to free internet, and have provided 305,000 hours of digital training to ensure families have the hardware, connection and educational resources to navigate today’s digital healthcare environment seamlessly.

Equipping families with critical resources is enough to inspire me to get out of bed each and every morning. The cherry on top, though, is when I witness the snowball effect of other organizations bridging a community need, too.

Adeeb Barqawi is the president and CEO of ProUnitas, a nonprofit that helps connect social, health and education services with students in need. In an interview with Texas Monthly, Barqawi shares his experience as an educator in Houston, where he witnessed inequity in the classroom firsthand and the gap that existed between available services and the families that need them.

To quote the article, “Kids would walk in hungry. I’d call and discover the food bank has a program. Kids needed a computer. There is Compudopt, a nonprofit that provides free computers to needy Texas students. As time went by, I would coordinate more services for my students. I also saw my students’ scores go up, and my classroom environment was better.”

Barqawi’s story is just one example of how our students and their communities thrive when given the opportunity – and the resources – to do so. As Compudopt introduces our services to new markets, we’re intentionally expanding to regions that need our services, including access to healthcare, most.

As we look to 2024, we hope to partner with even more like-minded organizations that will enable us to serve as many people as we can, in as many cities as we can, for healthier, happier communities.

Q. What can others in the healthcare industry do to help overcome the digital divide and boost access to virtual care?

A. Every solution starts with education. We all have a role to play in sharing information and resources about the digital divide and its impact on critical aspects of our lives, like healthcare. The first step those in the healthcare industry can take is to learn more about the issue itself, as well as how it impacts their neighborhood or service area. Then, we invite professionals to share that knowledge with their colleagues and network.

Once healthcare providers are exposed to the issue and solutions, we encourage an open dialogue with patients. Taking a few minutes to talk about a patient’s digital resources better equips providers to make recommendations, referrals or even devise a tailored plan for care.

If Compudopt serves your community, we encourage practitioners to refer patients to our team to learn more about the resources available to them.

Another way to bridge the digital divide is to recycle your used devices. We invite professionals to introduce your employer to Compudopt as a solution for retired devices or make a plan to donate your personal devices the next time you choose to upgrade. By giving devices a second life, we make a positive impact on local communities and our collective environment.

Finally, Compudopt is always seeking new corporate partners and volunteers to help us reach more communities with the power of connectivity. Whether it’s financially supporting local device distributions or volunteering at a skill-building class, every action moves our mission forward to a more equitable future.

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