Virtual Care and the Inverse Care Law: Implications for Policy, Practice, Research, Public and Patients
Alami H., Lehoux P., Shaw SE., Papoutsi C., Rybczynska-Bunt S., Fortin J-P.
Virtual care spread rapidly at the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Restricting in-person contact contributed to reducing the spread of infection and saved lives. However, the benefits of virtual care were not evenly distributed within and across social groups, and existing inequalities became exacerbated for those unable to fully access to, or benefit from virtual services. This “perspective” paper discusses the extent to which challenges in virtual care access and use in the context of COVID-19 follow the Inverse Care Law. The latter stipulates that the availability and quality of health care is inversely proportionate to the level of population health needs. We highlight the inequalities affecting some disadvantaged populations’ access to, and use of public and private virtual care, and contrast this with a utopian vision of technology as the “solution to everything”. In public and universal health systems, the Inverse Care Law may manifests itself in access issues, capacity, and/or lack of perceived benefit to use digital technologies, as well as in data poverty. For commercial “Direct-To-Consumer” services, all of the above may be encouraged via a consumerist (i.e., profit-oriented) approach, limited and episodic services, or the use of low direct cost platforms. With virtual care rapidly growing, we set out ways forward for policy, practice, and research to ensure virtual care benefits for everyone, which include: (1) pay more attention to “capabilities” supporting access and use of virtual care; (2) consider digital technologies as a basic human right that should be automatically taken into account, not only in health policies, but also in social policies; (3) take more seriously the impact of the digital economy on equity, notably through a greater state involvement in co-constructing “public health value” through innovation; and (4) reconsider the dominant digital innovation research paradigm to better recognize the contexts, factors, and conditions that influence access to and use of virtual care by different groups.