Digital divide or digital exclusion? Do allied health professionals' assumptions drive use of telehealth?

J Telemed Telecare. 2023 Aug 5:1357633X231189846. doi: 10.1177/1357633X231189846. Online ahead of print.


Introduction: Telehealth use within allied health services currently lacks structure and consistency, ultimately affecting who can, and cannot, access services. This study aimed to investigate the factors influencing allied health professionals' (AHP) selection of consumers and appointments for telehealth.

Methods: This study was conducted across 16 allied health departments from four Australian hospitals. Semi-structured focus groups were conducted with 58 AHPs. Analysis was underpinned by Qualitative Description methodology with inductive coding guided by Braun and Clarke's thematic analysis approach.

Results: Six themes were identified that influenced AHPs' evaluation of telehealth suitability and selection of consumers. These included the following: (1) ease, efficiency and comfort of telehealth for clinicians; (2) clear benefits of telehealth for the consumer, yet the consumers were not always given the choice; (3) consumers' technology access and ability; (4) establishing and maintaining effective therapeutic relationships via telehealth; (5) delivering clinically appropriate and effective care via telehealth; and (6) external influences on telehealth service provision. A further theme of 'assumption versus reality' was noted to pervade all six themes.

Discussion: Clinicians remain the key decision makers for whether telehealth is offered within allied health services. Ease and efficiency of use is a major driver in AHP's willingness to use telehealth. Assumptions and pre-conceived frames-of-reference often underpin decisions to not offer telehealth and present major barriers to telehealth adoption. The development of evidence-based, decision-support frameworks that engage the consumer and clinician in determining when telehealth is used is required. Services need to actively pursue joint decision-making between the clinician and consumer about service delivery preferences.

Keywords: Digital divide; allied health; assumption; consumer; ease; telehealth.