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Telemedicine Trends During COVID-19

February 4, 2021
Samara Rosenfeld

Investigators are probing data for patterns of telemedicine usage that will yield insights into the boom and future use of the technology.

Findings of a recent study shed light on the recent boom in telehealth use during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A team of Harvard investigators found 30.1% of all visits were provided through telemedicine and the weekly number of visits increased twenty-three-fold compared with before the pandemic. The team examined the variation in total outpatient visits and telemedicine use across patient demographics, specialties, and conditions in a database of 16.7 million commercially insured and Medicare Advantage enrollees from January to June 2020.

Here’s more of what the team found:

  • Telemedicine use was lower in areas with higher poverty rates (31.9% vs 27.9% for the lowest and highest quartiles of poverty rate).
  • In rural counties, there was a lower proportion of care performed through telemedicine than in urban counties (23.9% vs 30.7%).
  • The use of telemedicine varied by specialty, with 68%of visits being with an endocrinologist and 9% being with ophthalmologists.
  • Other specialties that did not see large spikes of telemedicine visits included optometry (3.3%), physical therapy (6.6%) and orthopedic surgeons (20.7%).
  • Mental health reasons such as depression (53% of visits), bipolar disorder (55%), and anxiety (53.9%), all resulted in increased telemedicine visits, while 3% of visits were for glaucoma.
  • Higher usage rates for common conditions were associated with smaller decreases in total weekly visits.

“It is important to interpret these findings in the context of our study population, which disproportionately included employed adults and their family members with commercial insurance. Therefore, these results should be interpreted as conditional on having commercial insurance or a Medicare Advantage plan,” the team wrote.

Future research may help understand the persistence of such trends over longer periods of time and the impact of the changes on patients’ overall health.

The study, “Outpatient Care During the COVID-19 Pandemic In The United States,” was published in the February issue of Health Affairs.