When It Comes to Telemedicine, Patients Are Less Excited Than Doctors

Jared Kaltwasser

In a new survey, just 18% of patients said they use telehealth services.

Enthusiasm for telemedicine is growing among healthcare providers, but they haven’t succeeded in sparking the same fire in their patients, according to a new study.

Fifty-five percent of providers surveyed by the telehealth company Avizia said they were investing in telehealth in 2017. Even so, just 18% of patients in the survey said they use telehealth services.

Why the gap? Tycene Fritcher, chief marketing officer at Avizia, told Healthcare Analytics News that 1 culprit is the learning curve facing providers.

“One challenge is that many providers aren’t really sure how to incorporate telehealth into their workflow in a way that makes sense for patients,” Fritcher said. “Should they offer virtual urgent care services? Or should they try to partner with hospitals to offer specialty consultations? And if they do these services, how will they generate income?”

Since providers are still figuring out exactly how to integrate telehealth, they’re not yet doing a sufficient job of educating patients, Fritcher said.

Still, providers are finding a number of areas of opportunity, according to the survey. Stroke care and behavioral health were the top 2 uses reported by providers, with stroke care nearly doubling in popularity over the previous year. Seven in 10 providers said they used telemedicine to expand their reach and improve healthcare access, while 55% said telehealth improves health outcomes. Another 44% said cost reduction was a reason they use telemedicine. A 2017 report by the Rural Broadband Association found that, on average, United States hospitals saved about $21,000 with telehealth last year.

Another major reason providers might be becoming more comfortable with telehealth is an improved payment landscape. Over the past 2 years, 29 states have enacted telehealth parity laws, requiring insurers to reimburse telehealth visits the same way they reimburse in-person visits. A federal version of the law was also introduced, though it has yet to make it out of committee.

On the question of finances, Fritcher said telemedicine makes fiscal sense for patients, many of whom are now on high-deductible plans.

“On the patient side, as consumers are being asked to bear more of the cost of healthcare through high-deductible and high-copay health plans, they’re seeking lower-cost alternatives to the traditional healthcare settings, such as the hospital emergency room or urgent care center,” she said.

Of the 78% of patients who haven’t used telehealth services, 10% said they hadn’t heard of it, and nearly a third said they simply prefer face-to-face visits. However, the rest said they haven’t had the opportunity to use it.

Of course, telehealth also raises questions about doctor-patient relationships. Telehealth visits can be convenient for patients because telehealth offers the opportunity to access a primary care provider at any time, from the comfort of the patient’s home. That raises the potential, however, that those patients won’t see their regular family doctor quite as much.

Buts Fritcher said telehealth can also have the opposite effect by enabling physicians to offer patients a wider range of services than might otherwise be possible.

“If patient has a good relationship with their primary-care provider, he or she may be more open to exploring other services with that provider, such as virtual care,” Fritcher said. “Interestingly, 49% of healthcare providers who participated in the study said that increasing engagement with existing patients was a primary driver for telehealth implementation.”

Fritcher noted that most of the benefits of telehealth visits can also apply when a person is seeing their regular physician. Moreover, she said, as time goes on it will feel normal to visit a doctor online instead of in person.

Ultimately, Fritcher said she believes that patient comfort and use will grow as physicians move past the enthusiasm phase of telemedicine and further into implementation phase. She said lingering apprehension from patients won’t last forever.

“It’s important to keep in mind that as video-based interactions grow more pervasive in the modern world, consumer comfort level with these interactions will grow, too,” Fritcher said.

Avizia’s report on Closing the Telemedicine Gap can be downloaded through the company's website.