Physicians Are Still Late Adopters, But Have Warmed Up Considerably To Telehealth

A new study from an industry vendor suggests that physicians are considerably more likely to adopt and use telehealth tools than they were in the past. This doesn’t mean an explosion in the use of telehealth among medical practices anytime soon, as I’ll explain below, but these are still some stats worth considering.

The survey, which was sponsored by American Well, is based on a poll of 800 physicians in the United States conducted in December 2018. Of the physicians, 62.5% were primary care-based and 37.5% were specialists.

The study found that while 57% of physicians in a prior study by the vendor said they are willing to conduct a video visit, 69% of physicians were up for the task this time around. They’re already late to the party compared to U.S. hospitals, three-fourths of which are currently using or plan to implement telehealth programs, according to the research cited by the report.

Despite their reputation as tech-averse, a full 60% of physicians aged 55+ said they were willing to conduct a video visit, followed by 70% of physicians aged 45-54. Newer doctors aged 25 – 34 were slightly less willing to use telehealth than those in the next-oldest category, an effect the study attributes to newer doctors being more tentative about the practice in general. (It seems to me that little bit of telehealth-related training in med school would fix this problem pretty quickly.)

The study also generated an interesting list of reasons physicians were willing to see patients via telehealth. They included increasing patient access to care, increasing their work-life balance, attracting/retaining new patients, improving patient outcomes and staying on the leading edge of medicine.

While the study doesn’t go into this, of course, medical groups still have some good reasons to avoid going into telehealth. It’s notable that the American Well numbers capture physicians who are “willing” to conduct telehealth visits, rather than those who actually have taken steps to bring telehealth services to their practice.

Research looking at whether the physicians were actually using telehealth or had concrete plans to do so underscores this point.

For example, a survey released last year by STAT News and the MGMA (notably, parties which have nothing to gain directly by promoting the use of this technology) found that just 26% of physician respondents offered telehealth services at the time. This represented only a small shift from figures gathered in 2017.

Even American Well conceded that there is a subset of physicians out there that will never be comfortable with virtual visits, for reasons such as a distrust of technology or a strong belief that they need to see a patient in person to do their job properly. Studies I’ve read over the past several years suggest that this group can’t be pinned down to a single demographic — it’s not just doctors nearing retirement age who feel this way — and that it seems to stay at about the same size.

That being said, even given American Well’s strong motive to pretty things up, the data does seem to show that a large number of doctors have made their peace with telehealth and even feel ready to try it out. Now, it will be time to wrestle with the integration and documentation challenges that have been waiting just around the corner. Don’t worry guys — it will be worth it.


About the author

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.