Telehealth: Will the Pandemic Sustain Its Adoption?

Patients’ use of telemedicine has exploded since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. The telehealth explosion was fueled by a number of factors including; patients’ fear of contracting the virus from in-person visits, providers’ desire to care for their patients within the pandemic guidelines, payers’ willingness to reimburse providers fairly for telemedicine visits and governments’ openness to ease regulations that restricted the widespread use of telemedicine.

Young and middle-aged adults are seeking more convenient ways to access medical care as their lives get busier and they face more demands on their time. The COVID-19 pandemic simply sped up the adoption rate of telehealth – a transition that was already in motion.

Now, the question for patients, providers, payers and government health organizations alike is whether the use of telemedicine will continue to grow. Or, will it subside once the COVID-19 outbreak plateaus? You might find the answer in what was happening with telemedicine before the pandemic.

On March 31, 2020, FAIR Health released its third annual FH Healthcare Indicators and FH Medical Price Index report. The report detailed the firm’s analysis of claims and costs from 2013 through 2018. The report and analysis are based on more than 30 billion medical claims filed by more than 150 million people covered by a commercial health plan or a Medicare Advantage plan.

Before COVID-19 started making its presence felt in the U.S., the adoption of telemedicine had been making steady progress, achieving 785 percent growth between 2013 to 2018, the report says. The number of claims submitted by patients for telemedicine visits rose 12 percent from 2017 to 2018 in comparison to a:

10%

increase in retail clinic claims

15%

decrease in emergency room claims

12%

decrease in ambulatory surgery claims

11%

decrease in urgent care claims

Not only did telemedicine visits increase by double digits, they increased more than visits to any other setting for primary care or emergent care, according to the analysis.

The top five reasons for seeing a provider via a telemedicine visit in 2018 were:

13%

Digestive system issues

11%

Acute respiratory infections

8%

Injury to body

7%

Joint/soft tissue issues

7%

Mental health reasons

In terms of age group, the biggest telemedicine users were patients age 31-40, which represented 20 percent of telemedicine claims in 2018 tracked by FAIR Health. The group of 41-50 year-olds followed at 18 percent, and 51-60 year-olds at 17 percent. Young and middle-aged adults are seeking more convenient ways to access medical care as their lives get busier and they face more demands on their time. The COVID-19 pandemic simply sped up the adoption rate of telehealth – a transition that was already in motion.

Before COVID-19, the adoption of telemedicine had been making steady progress, achieving 785 percent growth between 2013 to 2018.

The report says, “Telehealth is expected to grow even more during the current COVID-19 pandemic. In light of the need for expanded healthcare resources, and the need to avoid in-person contact that may promote disease transmission, telehealth is widely seen as having potential to extend its reach at this time, and regulations restricting it are being relaxed.”

4,347% increasein telemedicine visits from March 2019 to March 2020

In June 2020, FAIR Health reported a snapshot of the impact of telemedicine in March 2020 after COVID-19. FAIR Health said claims for telemedicine visits represented 7.52 percent of the claims in its database in March 2020. That compared to 0.17 percent in March 2019—a whopping 4,347 percent increase. They reported that there was a larger percentage growth rate in urban markets (0.18 to 7.88) vs. rural (0.10 to 4.73).

In addition, a recent McKinsey & Company study conducted in May 2020 concluded that the pandemic accelerated the momentum for telehealth use. The report found that in 2019, 11% of consumers used telehealth and now 76% of consumers are interested in using telehealth.  They also found an increase in provider’s willingness to use telehealth – 57% of providers view telehealth more favorably than they did prior to COVID and 64% are more comfortable using it.

TAKEAWAY

  • First, the use of telemedicine by patients was growing before the COVID-19 pandemic. The government waivers, combined with physical restrictions under the pandemic, helped fuel explosive growth.
  • Second, the outbreak clearly accelerated the use of telemedicine and this may be a preferable mode of care for patients for selective services going forward pending the status of the waivers, post-public health emergency.
  • Third, many health systems are re-thinking and pushing forward on their strategy and adoption for virtual health based on recent success during the pandemic.

Your challenge will be determining what your predictable telemedicine volume will be as the pandemic subsides, what conditions will drive patients to telemedicine visits and how much revenue you can count on from those virtual visits moving forward.

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