Opinion: The digital divide is a modern health hazard

Devon Valencia
Devon Valencia

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Devon Valencia, information officer for CareSource.
Devon Valencia, information officer for CareSource.

As a health care company, we’ve learned a lot in recent years about how important safe and stable housing is to health and wellness. Lately, our work in affordable housing is taking that understanding a step further: Just as we don’t consider a home that lacks electricity and plumbing to be habitable, we hardly can expect families to thrive in the 21st century without access to the internet.

That’s the thinking behind a three-year project that kicked off last year to provide free Wi-Fi and Chromebook laptops to hundreds of families living in public housing in Dayton.

Through the Dayton-Montgomery County Digital Equity Initiative, CareSource has been fortunate enough to join with Montgomery County, Cincinnati Bell, Greater Dayton Premier Management (the public housing authority), and many other partners to begin building a bridge across this community’s digital divide.

There may have been a time when internet access was a novelty and a luxury, but the pandemic made painfully clear that that time is past. Suddenly, seeing your doctor or doing your homework, or even getting groceries safely might well have depended on going online. While many low-income families have smartphones, many rely on prepaid plans with limited data use and relatively few families have Wi-Fi. We heard of whole families sharing a single phone for everyone’s homework and other online needs.

The digital equity project brought the Wi-Fi infrastructure into more than 850 households in five Premier Management properties. It also provided one Chromebook per household. Cincinnati Bell provides technical support for the network.

Now, every family in the five properties has the connectivity that most Americans take for granted.

Initial funding came from $2 million in federal pandemic relief money allocated by Montgomery County as well as a $400,000 grant from CareSource.

Of course, digital equity isn’t simply a matter of building the network and handing out devices; true digital inclusion requires making sure people are aware of resources and opportunities online and know how to access them.

The project deployed enough helpers to ensure that someone in each household was set up on the Chromebook and knew how to use it. In many cases, this meant helping residents create their first-ever emails.

Just as the initiative allows residents to reach out to employers, schools, and doctors, it also provides a reliable channel for talking to residents — but only if they opt-in.

So far, about half of the households have done so, and we’re setting up a plan for regular communication with participants in the project. A monthly informational email could include helpful reminders about health issues, such as blood pressure checks or safe baby sleep practices to avoid infant mortality. We can give updates on COVID-19, announce an onsite vaccination clinic and post videos with facts for those who may be hesitant about the vaccine. For CareSource members who opt-in, we can send personalized messages, such as a reminder to schedule a well-child visit.

This is new ground, and we’ll learn a lot over the next couple of years about what people respond to best and what helps them the most.

The important thing is to see that initiatives like this continue and spread to more families on the wrong side of the digital divide.

We are encouraged by action at the state level. House Bill 2, signed recently by Gov. Mike DeWine, provides $20 million to establish the Broadband Program Expansion Authority and fund a grant program that would subsidize telecommunication providers who expand into areas that wouldn’t otherwise be profitable. We encourage the General Assembly to find even more ways to support broadband expansion.

Those of us in health care talk a lot these days, with good reason, about the social determinants of health: housing, income, education, social isolation, behavioral health, and other factors that deeply affect a person’s physical health, for better or worse. We are coming to recognize that broadband is a “super determinant”: Not having broadband makes it harder to find a job, harder to keep up with your education, harder to stay connected socially.

Thinking about that makes one thing easy: advocating for the widest possible broadband access as soon as possible. Our state’s health depends on it.

Devon Valencia is chief information officer for CareSource.