- While overall telehealth use skyrocketed in 2020, usage varied widely among specialties and patient demographics, according to a new study published in Health Affairs.
- “During the pandemic, 30.1 percent of all visits were provided via telemedicine, and the weekly number of visits increased twenty-three-fold compared with the pre-pandemic period,” the study’s authors noted.
- Telehealth use was associated with more total weekly visits.
New Study: Telehealth Skyrocketed, but Not Evenly
A recent study published in Health Affairs confirms telehealth’s meteoric rise in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers analyzed data from 16.7 million patients enrolled in Medicare Advantage or commercial plans. From January to June of 2020, telehealth accounted for nearly one-third of all visits. However, overall visit volumes declined by 35 percent. Therefore, telehealth helped adapt to the “new normal”, expand care settings, and minimize the financial strain felt by practices and hospitals alike.
Sadiq Patel, Ph.D., one of the study’s authors, said: “After years of slow adoption, many clinicians used telemedicine for the first time to limit patient and staff exposure to the virus.”
Patients who were younger or lived in an urban area were more likely to use telehealth services than older or rural patients. Among common conditions, depression was the most treated while glaucoma was the least treated. There were significant differences in utilization among specialties, as well. More than half of endocrinologists, gastroenterologists, and neurologists used telehealth at least once. By comparison, fewer than 10 percent of optometrists, physical therapists, and opthamologists used telehealth.
Telehealth Use Illustrated Disparities
“Telemedicine use during COVID-19 varied across different clinical settings and patient populations, with lower use found among insurance enrollees in disadvantaged areas,” the study’s authors wrote. “There are concerns that increased use of telemedicine during the pandemic may exacerbate health disparities because of the ‘digital divide’ defined as the absence of necessary broadband or smartphone technology among disadvantaged populations.”
To reduce these disparities and decrease patient discrimination, organizations are collaborating to improve equity. At the American Telemedicine Association’s (ATA) EDGE policy conference, groups launched the Telehealth Equity Coalition. Participants — which included Hims & Hers, Adaptation Health, the National Health IT Collaborative for the Underserved — “will take a data-driven approach to identifying opportunities and advocating to improve telehealth policy,” Healthcare IT News reported.