Desperately Seeking Intersectionality in Digital Health Disparity Research: Narrative Review to Inform a Richer Theorization of Multiple Disadvantage

J Med Internet Res. 2022 Dec 7;24(12):e42358. doi: 10.2196/42358.


Background: Digital consultations between patients and clinicians increased markedly during the COVID-19 pandemic, raising questions about equity.

Objective: This study aimed to review the literature on how multiple disadvantage-specifically, older age, lower socioeconomic status, and limited English proficiency-has been conceptualized, theorized, and studied empirically in relation to digital consultations. We focused mainly on video consultations as they have wider disparities than telephone consultations and relevant data on e-consultations are sparse.

Methods: Using keyword and snowball searching, we identified relevant papers published between 2012 and 2022 using Ovid MEDLINE, Web of Science, Google Scholar, and PubMed. The first search was completed in July 2022. Papers meeting the inclusion criteria were analyzed thematically and summarized, and their key findings were tabulated using the Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development, and Evaluation Confidence in the Evidence from Reviews of Qualitative Research criteria. Explanations for digital disparities were critically examined, and a search was undertaken in October 2022 to identify theoretical lenses on multiple disadvantage.

Results: Of 663 articles from the initial search, 27 (4.1%) met our inclusion criteria. In total, 37% (10/27) were commentaries, and 63% (17/27) were peer-reviewed empirical studies (11/27, 41% quantitative; 5/27, 19% qualitative; 1/27, 4% mixed methods; 1/27, 4% systematic reviews; and 1/27, 4% narrative reviews). Empirical studies were mostly small, rapidly conducted, and briefly reported. Most studies (25/27, 93%) identified marked digital disparities but lacked a strong theoretical lens. Proposed solutions focused on identifying and removing barriers, but the authors generally overlooked the pervasive impact of multiple layers of disadvantage. The data set included no theoretically informed studies that examined how different dimensions of disadvantage combined to affect digital health disparities. In our subsequent search, we identified 3 theoretical approaches that might help account for these digital disparities. Fundamental cause theory by Link and Phelan addresses why the association between socioeconomic status and health is pervasive and persists over time. Digital capital theory by Ragnedda and Ruiu explains how people mobilize resources to participate in digitally mediated activities and services. Intersectionality theory by Crenshaw states that systems of oppression are inherently bound together, creating singular social experiences for people who bear the force of multiple adverse social structures.

Conclusions: A limitation of our initial sample was the sparse and undertheorized nature of the primary literature. The lack of attention to how digital health disparities emerge and play out both within and across categories of disadvantage means that solutions proposed to date may be oversimplistic and insufficient. Theories of multiple disadvantage have bearing on digital health, and there may be others of relevance besides those discussed in this paper. We call for greater interdisciplinary dialogue between theoretical research on multiple disadvantage and empirical studies on digital health disparities.

Keywords: digital capital; digital health disparities; fundamental cause theory; health inequity; intersectionality; mobile phone; narrative review; video consultations.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19*
  • Empirical Research
  • Humans
  • Interdisciplinary Studies
  • Pandemics*
  • Qualitative Research