While studies may show that African-Americans are more likely to use Twitter, when it comes to accessing health records online we are falling way behind, according to Health Day News. Researchers from Harvard University's Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston found that 43 percent of more than 75,000 patients living in the Northeast took advantage of looking up their personal health records online when offered the service by their doctors.
Now half doesn't seem too bad a percentage, but when they took a closer look at their data, they found that African-Americans and Latinos were only half as likely to sign up for personal health record access compared with white patients. They also found that the wealthiest patients were 14 percent more likely to initiate personal health record use than the poorest patients.
And we all know that race and class go hand in hand.
"It's really probably just been in the last three or four years that usage has really begun to take off," noted study co-author Dr. David W. Bates, chief of the division of general internal medicine at Harvard University's Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "And it's growing very fast, and should continue to grow really rapidly. But the bottom line is that a digital divide does exist in terms of who tends to start using online personal health records," Bates said.
So why does this divide matter to us?
Because past research has shown that having access to these files can actually empower patients to be more knowledgeable about their health, which is something that we so desperately need given the health disparities and health illiteracy in our community. By accessing health records, patients can ask questions about their care, request drug refills, get doctors' referrals, make address corrections and ask billing questions. Most importantly, people can access their test and lab results online.
What's slightly annoying is that the researchers could not say for sure what played into these racial and socioeconomic disparities—they claim that more research needs to be done. I only hope that in the future, these researchers keep in mind the following "no-duhs" when trying to understand African Americans' lack of online participation with their health records:
People living below the poverty line have less access to a computer or have computers in their homes. People who are disproportionately living below the poverty line tend to be people of color—i.e. African-Americans.
People who are not insured tend to access the emergency room for their primary health care. And given the fast-paced, chaotic environment of the ER, sitting down and setting people up into this online system seems highly unlikely. Who disproportionately uses the ER as primary care? African-Americans.
There have been numerous studies that have proven that doctors treat white patients and black patients differently. Are all patients being asked to sign up for their personal health record, or are doctors' own biases playing a factor in who gets access to this program and who doesn't?
This unfortunate "digital divide"--whether researchers understand it or not--speaks to greater issues in the divide between who has access to good health care and who does not.
(Photo: Luke Macgregor/Reuters /Landov)