There has been a plethora of tracking studies starting last year on how telemedicine stepped in for in-person visits during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Telehealth visits peaked, then tapered off as medical offices reopened. Reviewing our articles:
- Commonwealth/Phreesia: tracking the latter’s practices, they dropped from a high of 13.9 percent on 18 April to 6.3 percent by early October. Where telemedicine use stayed high was behavioral health–psychiatry–which remained at 41 percent.
- Epic Health Research Network’s data, which concentrated on hospitals and clinics, showed a similar drop from the mid-April high of 69 percent but ended August at 21 percent. Regionally, the South had the least takeup of telehealth even in the critical period.
- FAIR Health, using insurer claims data, tracked with Commonwealth/Phreesia from 13 percent in April to 6 percent by August.
The latest study has been just published in Health Affairs (abstract free, paid access full study). Using data from 16.7 million commercially insured and Medicare Advantage enrollees from January to June 2020, the steep rise from a negligible base was the same but the percentages were between the Commonwealth and Epic studies. 30.1 percent of all visits were provided via telemedicine (including telephonic) and the weekly number of visits increased twenty-three-fold compared with the prepandemic period. The database also permitted a deeper analysis of usage.
- Telemedicine use was lower in communities with higher rates of poverty (31.9 percent versus 27.9 percent for the lowest and highest quartiles of poverty rate, respectively). Unfortunately for comparison, not included in the information was the actual rate in wealthy counties.
- Overall visits (in-person and virtual) plummeted by 35 percent, a backlog in deferred care still being made up
- Rural telemedicine use was lower than urban–24 percent versus 31 percent by county
- How specialties incorporated telehealth varied widely. As previously reported, psychiatry had a high uptake of telemedicine and reported the least drop in overall visits. Surprisingly, endocrinology (68 percent) and neurology also had high utilization. Only 9 percent of ophthalmologists reported telehealth use, because the physical exam requires highly specialized equipment.
- Management of chronic conditions was in between those two extremes. Conditions like hypertension and diabetes had a big drop in care volume that was mitigated by a large increase in telemedicine use.