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Stop talking about the 'digital divide' and start addressing 'digital inequity'

By Ty Aderhold

September 8, 2021

    The digital health research team at Advisory Board launched new research on the digital divide in early 2021. One of our most significant findings was that the term "digital divide" is an incomplete and misleading way to describe the challenges of digital inequity.

    I sat down with Rae Woods to talk about digital inequity, our research, and some of the other things I've learned for the latest episode of Radio Advisory. But I want to dig deeper into why we've changed the language we use to describe this issue at Advisory Board, and why we think you should change the way you talk about it, too.

    There are three misconceptions about digital inequity that are baked into the term "digital divide."

    Misconception 1: 'Digital divide' is synonymous with broadband access, especially—and often exclusively—rural broadband access.

    Early on in our research, almost every discussion of the "digital divide," both among our own team and with our research contacts, began with the challenges of rural broadband. And sometimes, the conversation would stay there, as if rural broadband access was the root cause of the issue.

    As our team learned more, we realized that the issue at hand is bigger than broadband, and includes affordability, digital literacy, and inclusive and accessible design of digital tools and experiences. 

    But even as we shifted our focus away from broadband, it always seemed to find its way back into discussions. This bothered me, and it bothered me enough that I started to explore why. Part of the reason that rural broadband dominates conversations about digital inequity is broader structural inequity.

    Rural broadband infrastructure is the digital barrier that is most likely to be faced by middle class or wealthy white Americans. Rural broadband has also, perhaps unsurprisingly then, been the historical focus of governmental policies related to the digital divide.

    Don't misinterpret what I'm saying. Rural broadband represents an enormous challenge that is worthy of investment and attention. It's just not the only problem of digital inequity worthy of investment and attention.

    Misconception 2: The 'digital divide' exists only between 'have's' and 'have nots.'

    Digital divide is a catchy phrase. Advisory Board has used it in some of our own work on this issue. It's alliterative, and it's used widely across multiple industries. Unfortunately, it does not accurately describe the issue.

    First, it implies that digital inequity is a binary problem. It carves the world into the haves and have nots. In reality, patients can experience challenges across a spectrum of ability and access. A patient may have broadband access but still struggle to navigate through a patient portal. Or perhaps they have strong digital literacy skills and a cell phone with a data plan, but they cannot afford to use that data plan for a video visit near the end of the month.

    Second, the word "divide" implies that a solution will move people from group A to group B. It is not uncommon to see people extend the digital divide metaphor to its natural conclusion and discuss how to "bridge" the digital divide.

    This leads back to thinking exclusively about infrastructure. It's easy to imagine how new fiber optic line can move people across the divide. Once the infrastructure is in place those who can afford the monthly broadband fee go from "have not" to "have." It's much harder to envision that sort of "flip the switch" transformation happening for essential solutions like ongoing digital literacy training.

    Misconception 3: There is one single solution to the 'digital divide' problem.

    The phrase "digital divide" leads us to also believe that there is a single, finite solution to the problem. Instead, health care needs to acknowledge that digital inequity is an ongoing, systematic challenge that can't be solved all at once and must be continually worked against.

    In every conversation I have, and throughout our recent work, I try to use the term "digital inequity" to describe the totality of challenges related to broadband access, affordability, digital literacy, and accessibility.

    Sure, I still slip on occasion. Every now and then, I even say "digital divide" just to make sure people know what I mean. But I always follow that up with why I think digital inequity leads to a better, more holistic understanding of the problem.

    Digital inequities (and why you shouldn't call it the digital divide)

    Listen to the latest Radio Advisory episode

    Radio Advisory, a podcast for busy health care leaders.

    The Covid-19 pandemic has led to massive digital investments in the health care industry. In this episode, host Rachel Woods sits down with Advisory Board's Ty Aderhold to talk about these investments, what their impact on equity could be, and why you might want to abandon the phrase "digital divide."

    Listen Now

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