Patients value telemedicine, but satisfaction dipped in 2021

Telehealth use surged due to the COVID-19 pandemic and many patients welcomed the option. But a new survey shows some patients prefer in-person visits for some of their needs.

While many patients appreciate having the option of telemedicine, a new study found a drop in satisfaction with virtual healthcare visits.

A Rock Health survey of telemedicine usage showed fewer people preferred telehealth over in-person visits in 2021. Telehealth satisfaction remains high, but the survey also indicated some patients prefer to go to a doctor’s office for some of their needs.

The survey found 43% of participants said they were more satisfied with a live video call than a past in-person visit in 2021, compared to 53% who said they preferred the video visit in 2020. The survey also found 29% reported equal satisfaction between live video calls and in-person visits in 2021, a slight increase from 2020 (25%).

The change could represent a natural shift in consumer sentiment, the study suggested.

A year ago, patients may have expressed more satisfaction with video calls simply because they were grateful to have any contact with a doctor during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“One hypothesis is that as the pandemic evolved, consumers started viewing telemedicine as an alternative to in-person care, rather than a necessary replacement,” the report stated. “In other words, the sense of satisfaction (maybe as a barometer for gratitude) consumers felt for having the option of telemedicine in 2020 has diminished.”

The report found that 73% of previous telemedicine users said they expect to use telemedicine at the same rate or more in the future.

Doctors continue to appreciate telemedicine, although physician enthusiasm dipped a bit in 2021 as well. This year, 58% of surveyed doctors said they appreciate telemedicine more now than before the COVID-19 pandemic, compared to 64% in 2020.

Consumers shifted how they used telemedicine in 2021.

This year, patients most often used telemedicine for a minor illness (32% of those surveyed), followed by an emergency (20%). In 2020, a medical emergency was the most common reason for a telemedicine appointment (33%). As the report notes, this represents a sensible shift, since telemedicine appear best suited for less urgent healthcare needs, while patients are better served seeing a doctor in person for an emergency.

Consumers showed significant differences in how they want to use telemedicine. Those seeking treatment for the flu or a cold showed a slight preference for a live video telemedicine appointment (41%) over an in-person visit (39%). Patients were also fine with getting prescription refills via video (34%) compared to an in-person appointment (30%).

For other needs, such as mental health or physical therapy, patients overwhelmingly preferred an in-person visit. For mental health, in-person visits were the preference over video (62% to 25%). For physical therapy, the preference for in-person visits was even greater (66% to 12%).

The authors of the report said providers using and expanding telemedicine can’t simply rely on a uniform approach for all patients.

Providers must personalize their services and they must remain focused on fulfilling the needs of patients. Healthcare organizations must also help patients navigate the best option.

“The consumer experience should enable ease, speed, and personalization of care navigation all the way through care delivery,” the report stated.

“Companies that can bring together assets (via ownership or partnership) along this care journey - triage, virtual and in-person care, diagnostics, labs, medication delivery - are poised to win with customers.”

Younger consumers with higher incomes have shown they are the most likely to use telemedicine, the report found. While offering the promise of giving patients convenience in care, telehealth could also worsen inequities in treatment, the authors stated.

Older residents and those with lower incomes were less likely to use telemedicine, which ironically means they are losing out on the benefits of an option which could give them more access to healthcare.

“Digital health may leave some patients behind by exacerbating existing gaps related to internet and tech access, device ownership, and digital literacy,” the report stated.

Non-white patients were more likely than white consumers to use telemedicine, according to the report.

The report said 79% of white respondents used telemedicine in 2021, compared to 87% of Hawaiian and Pacific Island participants, 79% of Black respondents, 78% of Asian participants and 73% of Hispanic respondents. It’s possible some non-white patients, particularly Black consumers, were more apt to turn to telehealth due to healthcare disparities driven by systemic racism, the report stated.

Telemedicine should remain a significant component of the healthcare landscape in the coming years.

The Business Group on Health, an organization which represents large employers, said virtual healthcare would remain one of the top health trends in 2022. The Business Group also said providers must be smart about pairing telemedicine with in-person care and helping patients make the best choices for their needs.

A federal report showed 52.7 million telehealth visits from Medicare recipients in 2020, up from about 840,000 in 2019. That’s a 63-fold increase in one year.

The federal government eased restrictions on telemedicine during the pandemic to help people get access to healthcare professionals. The waivers are tied to the COVID-19 public health emergency.

More than a dozen healthcare advocacy groups, including the American Hospital Association and the AARP, are pressing Congress to make the waivers permanent to ensure patients have access to telehealth services. They’ve launched a public education campaign, Telehealth Access for America, to spur consumer awareness and to encourage lawmakers to take action.