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Digital Divide in Healthcare Services
The internet since its inception has changed the world significantly. Every single day, more and more individuals are stepping on the internet bandwagon by using it and learning from it. The internet has not stopped making its way into every single aspect of an individual’s life. The internet has also slowly made its way into the healthcare sector and nowadays people can obtain health related information online. According to a study by (Grandinetti, 2000), there are over 70000 websites that relay different kinds of information related to health. That study was made in 2000 and it has been consistently rising since then (Nielsen//NetRatings, 2005). Governments around the world are turning towards information technology and modern communications methods to expand the healthcare services to all their population. Furthermore, healthcare organizations are under increasing pressure to decrease their costs and improve efficiency, so this has also forced them to look towards the internet (Anderson, 2003); (Shelia, 2004).
One of the major areas in which the governments and healthcare institutions have been trying to improve health services is through a new discipline called E-health. According to (Eysenbach, 1999), E- health is “studying applications of the internet and global networking technologies to medicine and public health, examining the impact and implications of the internet, and evaluating opportunities and challenges for the health care.” It is a service that is growing exponentially at over 34% per annum (Dialogue, 2000). It also is becoming a cornerstone of health services (Coile, 2001).
However, E-health is a service that depends heavily on the internet and hence also falls into a problem that the internet has been facing, which is a digital divide. The purpose of this paper is to do a critical review of some of the researches that were focusing on the digital divide that exists in the healthcare sector.
Digital divide is an area that has received a lot of attention over the past decade by various researchers and policy makers. It mainly consists of two aspects which are, access (Anthony, 2000) and use (NTIA, 1998). There are a number of factors that can cause digital divide. It could be demographical factors (Brinson, 2002), economic factors (McLaren, 2002), cultural factors (Press, 2005) or political factors (Hung, 2004). Income and disability also play a part in the usage of the internet (Horrigan, 2004). A lot of the researches on this topic are more focused on the demographic statistics and issue of technological access. However, it is vital that more be done on a socially informed research on the effective uses of modern technology.
Jing Chong published a research paper in which he developed an agenda for studying the digital divide among the health services (Chong, 2005). The paper establishes that health services is a very important area for studying digital divide issues since it is fundamental to life itself. The author of this paper also believes that information is one of the most important resources in developing health services. According to (Gann, 1986), information can be imparted through health education and promotion. The author also points out the peer support is a way in which information related to health can be distributed as the peers organize online discussion groups, they run websites and they help in sharing information as well as offering psychological consultation. Thus they form online health communities and help in spreading awareness about the different health services available.
However, one of the most important points that the author has failed to take into consideration is the fact that even today most of the people in the world, especially in the underdeveloped and developing countries, still have no access to the internet or they are not literate enough to be able to use the net. There are still large parts of population in countries such as India, where the internet has not yet spread to the rural masses. Even developed countries like the UK has not provided broadband access to all its citizens. Hence in such situations, E-health is not a possibility as of now. The paper also fails to take into consideration the fact that even now, most of the countries in the world are still not fully operational when it comes to health services. For example, in India, the government has on paper dictated a large number of schemes for the rural people in order to uplift their health, however most of those schemes are yet to bear fruit due to a lot of different factors like ignorance, superstition etc whereas in Indian metropolitan cities, the health services are far better. This is primarily due to the amount of knowledge the people living in cities enjoy. Having knowledge empowers people to assume more responsibility towards maintaining their own health.
Therefore in order for health services to penetrate every nook and corner of a country, it is vital for the digital divide to be reduced since, the internet and modern communication technologies are the only way to educate masses on the services currently available and details about them.
This paper does provide an insight into the demography of healthcare consumers and the internet. The author has done a good job in providing the various sets of approaches for examining consumer health services digital divide issues. In summary, the author believes that certain demographic characteristics also are responsible for the prevalence of a digital divide. These factors are:
- Gender: According to the author’s research, more women use the internet regularly as compared to men (Hern, 1998). As per the authors research, women tend to be more health conscious and therefore use the internet more in a proactive manner for health promotion. The paper also states that no gender differences exist in the usage of practice websites.
- Age: Age is another factor that plays a role in creating a digital divide. The paper establishes the fact that younger generations of people are more likely to ignore the internet for obtaining and learning health related information. Older people are more responsible and actively use the net for health related services. Therefore, age is a factor in creating a digital divide between the younger and older generation when it comes to health services.
- Literacy/Education: The study also reveals that education and literacy levels are one of the most fundamental factors for creating a digital divide. Only educated people or people who have been trained to use a computer system or work on the internet can use modern technologies to learn and access health services. This factor becomes even more significant in the case of developing and underdeveloped countries which are still trying to improve their literacy levels among their population. Computer and online literacy are considered as prerequisites for online health information seeking.
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Digital divide among the healthcare services has always existed right from the moment the internet was introduced into healthcare. Significant efforts have to be put into bridging the divide as it can lead to great benefits for the people. In order to bridge this divide, it is absolutely vital that all the factors involved in creating this divide in the first place be identified first. Only then must we proceed to solve all the problems and try bridging this gap. More researches must be conducted, especially in the developing nations as it is in these countries where the divide is the greatest and by reducing this divide, they can expect a significant improvement to their population’s health. Another important factor in which future studies should look into instead of just focusing on the technological and demographical factors is towards a more political and historical perspectives. In addition it is important to do more research into developing better ways to educate people on the various benefits of using health services using the internet.
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