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Rural Health Information Hub

Technology and Broadband Access for Health Literacy Programs

Digital tools, such as smartphone-based health apps and online patient portals, can greatly enhance patient engagement, support, and health outcomes. However, programs using these tools may find it difficult to engage patients who do not have the digital skills, training, or broadband access to utilize these tools effectively.

Reliable, high-speed internet access continues to be a challenge in some parts of the U.S., often in more remote and rural locations. According to the Federal Communications Commission, 25% or more of people living in rural communities and tribal areas still lack broadband access. Rural residents also are less likely to own a smartphone or computer. These disparities present clear barriers for rural health literacy programs incorporating digital health components and health information technology.

These divides in technology and internet access also make it even more important for programs to focus on methods for improving digital health literacy. Improving digital health literacy can help ensure that when people are presented with digital health information, the design is intentional and considers a variety of comprehension levels. Programs that incorporate health technology into interventions may wish to consider if it is feasible to provide different options for accessing the information: for example, through patient portals, websites, or mobile apps.

As rural health literacy programs look to use new technology to provide care to communities, it is important to implement digitally inclusive strategies and focus on improving digital health equity. To better support communities in their use of technology, rural health literacy programs should consider:

  • Conducting user testing and incorporating the perspectives of rural community members and rural experts in the design of digital programming
  • Partnering with community members with experience in digital literacy training and facilitating connectivity, such as librarians, community health workers, and patient navigators
  • Assessing broadband access and digital literacy across communities served
  • Incorporating health literacy principles in design and implementation
  • Providing digital skill training to community members and staff
  • Using several different approaches to engage people, such as text messages, mobile apps, and online portals that limit the use of medical jargon

For more information about broadband access in rural communities and considerations for adopting health information technology for health literacy programs, see the Health Information Technology in Rural Healthcare Topic Guide.

Resources to Learn More

Commentary: Broadband Anchor Institutions Drive Telehealth in Rural Areas
Discusses the importance of collaboration between institutions, such as schools, libraries, government buildings, and healthcare centers, to facilitate telehealth access and adoption and advance public health.
Author(s): Settles, C.
Organization(s): Daily Yonder
Date: 7/2021

Digital Health in a Broadband Land: The Role of Digital Health Literacy within Rural Environments
Highlights the benefits of using digital technology for improving digital health literacy in rural areas. Describes the skills required for navigating digital health technology and identifies methods to evaluate, assess, and support digital health literacy in rural populations.
Author(s): Sui, W., Facca, D.
Citation: Health Science Inquiry, 11(1)
Date: 6/2020

Digital Inclusion as a Social Determinant of Health
Discusses how the reliance on digital tools and internet connectivity for populations lacking the skills to use or access them can be identified as a social determinant of health. Provides recommendations for healthcare systems promoting equitable distribution of information and access to communication technologies.
Author(s): Sieck, C.J., Sheon, A., Ancker, J.S., et al.
Citation: npj Digital Medicine, 4, 52
Date: 3/2021