It’s good news–and an antidote to the bubble at the same time. Rock Health and Stanford University Medicine-Center for Digital Health’s just-released report found that, unsurprisingly, that telemedicine/telehealth use rocketed during the pandemic and gained ground that would not have been true for years otherwise, as of September 2020. However, the growth was not largely from new demographics, but largely among the adopters of telehealth in 2019 and prior. It also rolled back to about 6 percent of visits. Wearable use also boosted, especially for better sleep, as did self-tracking. But overall healthcare utilization cratered from March onward, barely reviving in the late summer, and telemedicine use declined to a steady state of about 6 percent of all visits–far more than the near-zero it was pre-pandemic. Here’s our rundown of the highlights.
Telemedicine user demographics haven’t changed significantly. It accelerated among those in the 2019 and prior (through 2015) profile: higher-income earners ($150K+), middle-aged adults aged 35-54, highly educated (masters degree and higher), urban residents, slightly male skewed (74 percent men/66 percent women/67 percent non-binary)and those with one or more chronic conditions (78 percent) and high utilizers (87 percent with 6+ visits/year). This profile apparently sustains across racial and ethnicity lines. (page 15) The non-user profile tends to be female, over 55, lower-income, rural, not on a prescription, and Hispanic. (page 23)
More usage of live virtual video visits than before–11 points up from 32 to 43 percent. These reduced reliance on non-video communications: telephonic, text, asynchronous pictures/video, and email. (page 12) And respondents largely accessed live video and phone visits through their doctor, indicating a pivot on practices’ parts: 70 percent of live video telemedicine users and 60 percent of live phone telemedicine users. (page 17) But the reasons why were more acute than this Editor expected: 33 percent for medical emergency, then minor illness (25 percent), then chronic condition (19 percent). (page 16)
Barriers to use remain significant in telemedicine and have not changed year to year except for awareness of options. (page 22-23)
- Prefer to discuss health in-person (52 percent)
- Not aware of options (much less this year)
- Provider didn’t recommend
- Poor cellular or broadband connection is minimal (3 percent). There is also no barrier of ‘inability to use’, though this may be skewed by the survey group being online (see methodology).
Wearables and digital information tracking accelerated, but ‘churn’ continued. 54 percent of respondents adopted wearables, up 10 points, while information tracking increased by 12 points. (page 11) Unpacking this:
- The populations with the highest rate of digital tracking were those with heart disease, diabetes, and obesity as chronic conditions
- The leading reasons for wearables remained fitness training and weight loss. However, right behind these were major year-to-year spikes in better sleep (27 to 52 percent), managing a diagnosed condition (28 to 51 percent), and managing stress (24 to 44 percent).
- The surprise uses of wearables? Managing fertility tracking and menstrual cycle.
- Yet wearables churn continues. From the study: 55 percent of respondents who owned a wearable in 2020 stopped using it for one or more purposes (though they may continue using it for another purpose). The demographics tend to mirror telemedicine users for adoption and stopping use. (pages 24-28)
Healthcare utilization overall, telemedicine or not, has barely revived versus the March baseline, using the Commonwealth Fund data TTA profiled here. The report usefully digs into the groups that delayed care: 50 percent of 35-54-year-olds, women, Northeast residents, chronic conditions, and mental health. (page 34)
Yet trust in health information remains with the person’s physician, family, hospital, payer, and pharmacy. Overall, there is a reluctance to share data with entities beyond these. Health tech and tech companies aren’t trusted sources, along with social media, and lag to less than 25 percent, along with less willingness to share data with them. COVID-19 data is broken out in sharing, generally following these trends except for more willingness to share this data with governmental entities and research. (pages 29-31)
The report recommends that for telemedicine to go deeper into adoption, refocusing is in order: (page 21)
- Shift from a transactional model to a continuous virtual care or ‘full-stack’ model
- Seek a different kind of customer. One-third of telemedicine visits were for emergencies. A more sustainable model would concentrate on chronic condition management and lower-acuity care.
- Accept that new care models are disintermediating the patient-provider relationship especially in the younger age groups
The methodology of the survey: N=7,980 US adults, matched to US demographics; dates conducted 4 September-2 October 2020; online survey in English only. Rock Health summary, link to free survey report download, Mobihealthnews article.