Association between broadband capacity and telehealth utilization among Medicare Fee-for-service beneficiaries during the COVID-19 pandemic

J Telemed Telecare. 2023 Apr 5:1357633X231166026. doi: 10.1177/1357633X231166026. Online ahead of print.


Background: Telehealth is a rapidly growing modality for expanding healthcare access, especially in the post-COVID-19 era. However, telehealth requires high-quality broadband, thus making broadband a social determinant of health. The objective of this study was to evaluate the association between broadband access and telehealth utilization across the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Methods: Using a cross-sectional, ecological study design, we merged county-level data on broadband capacity (Microsoft's Rural Broadband Initiative), telehealth utilization among Medicare Fee-for-Service beneficiaries from January through September 2020 (CareJourney), and county-level socioeconomic characteristics (Area Health Resources Files). Multivariable linear regression was used to estimate the association between broadband capacity, county-level characteristics, and telehealth utilization.

Results: Among the 3107 counties, those with the greatest broadband availability (quintile 5) had 47% higher telehealth utilization compared to counties with the least broadband availability (quintile 1). In the adjusted model, a 1 standard deviation (SD) increase in broadband access was associated with a 1.54 percentage point (pp) increase in telehealth utilization (P < 0.001). Rural county designation (-1.96 pp; P < 0.001) and 1 SD increases in average Medicare beneficiary age (-1.34 pp; P = 0.001), number of nursing home beds per 1000 individuals (-0.38 pp; P = 0.002), and proportion of Native Americans/Pacific Islanders (-0.59 pp; P < 0.001) were associated with decreased telehealth utilization.

Conclusion: The association between broadband access and telehealth utilization and the decreased telehealth utilization in rural areas highlight the importance of broadband access for healthcare access and the need to continue investing in broadband infrastructure to promote equitable healthcare access across populations.

Keywords: Broadband; Medicare Fee-for-service beneficiaries; disparities; telehealth.