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COVID-19 pandemic shows disparities in internet access must be treated as public health issue, researchers say

An editorial making their case is in the August issue of the American Journal of Public Health

By Tyler Griesenbrock
CATALYST scientific editor

Published August 10, 2020

A lack of broadband internet access has “the potential to exacerbate this country’s existing health disparities because it disproportionately affects those who are already vulnerable,” according to the authors of an editorial appearing in the August 2020 issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

That’s true now more than ever, they argue, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, when stay-at-home orders were put in place in many parts of the country. In the face of those orders, internet access allowed individuals to take part in necessary activities including obtaining food and groceries and accessing health care; however, those without access faced increased risk of exposure to the virus.

The editorial was written by Natalie Benda and Jessica Ancker with the Department of Population Health Sciences in the Division of Health Informatics at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York; Tiffany Veinot with the School of Information and the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education in the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor; and Cynthia J. Sieck with the Department of Family and Community Medicine in the College of Medicine at The Ohio State University in Columbus.

“The digital divide creates significant inequalities in health, employment, education and many other opportunities. During the COVID-19 shutdown, some organizations extended their Wi-Fi to parking lots so that individuals without home internet access could do school work, look for jobs, or apply for unemployment benefits. That is critical during a crisis, but it is not equitable,” said Dr. Sieck, who is a core faculty member with CATALYST – the Center for the Advancement of Team Science, Analytics, and Systems Thinking in Health Services and Implementation Science Research – at Ohio State.

The editorial’s authors argue a lack of broadband internet access affects each of the six social determinant of health domains that have been defined by the American Medical Association – the health care system, economic stability, education, food, community/social support and neighborhood – as well as access to credible information, which is critical during a pandemic.

“Viewing broadband internet access as a social determinant of health presents an opportunity to re-examine how we create a system that provides equitable access,” Dr. Sieck said.

A preview of the editorial is available on the American Journal of Public Health’s website. The journal, first published in 1911, describes itself as “dedicated to publication of original work in research, research methods, and program evaluation in the field of public health”

For more information about the American Journal of Public Health, visit https://ajph.aphapublications.org. For more information about CATALYST at Ohio State, visit http://go.osu.edu/catalyst