The use of telehealth services climbed dramatically over the four years between 2014 and 2018, according to new research based on healthcare claims data.
To get a look at telehealth’s impact on healthcare overall, FAIR Health analyzed more than 29 billion healthcare claim records.
Their analysis concluded that the number of claim lines related to any type of telehealth service increased 624% during that period and that the use of non-hospital-based provider-to-patient telehealth grew 1,393%. During the same period, physician telehealth consults with patients in the ED or inpatient beds grew 397%.
When it came to conditions being treated, researchers found that acute upper respiratory infections were the most common reason individuals sought non-hospital-based telehealth care in 2018, accounting for 16% of claim lines for all telehealth visits in that category. Acute sinusitis diagnoses represented 45% of claims in this category.
This was followed by mood disorders (6%), anxiety and other nonpsychotic mental disorders (5%), poisoning and other consequences of external causes (5%), then urinary system issues and reproductive health services (both 4%).
The analysis also found that 57% of patients diagnosed with heart failure via telehealth were seen in person by a non-hospital-based provider within 15 days, followed by 52% of those diagnosed with malignant neoplasms of the breast, 45% of those diagnosed with alcohol-related disorders and 43% of those diagnosed with opioid-related disorders. In contrast, just 2% of patients accessing contraceptive management services via telehealth had an in-person visit within 15 days.
Despite what one might expect, the use of telehealth services grew more rapidly in urban than rural areas during the period studied. In urban areas, usage of non-hospital-based provider-to-patient telehealth increased 1,227%, while in rural areas, uptake increased 897%.
However, telehealth use after hospital discharge better fit the expected pattern. Claim lines for this type of telehealth grew 407% in rural areas, while in urban areas, use increased 157%.
In the case of provider-to-provider telehealth consults, meanwhile, use in rural areas has grown while use in urban areas actually declined, with rural claim lines for this category of service growing 68%. Provider-to-provider telehealth claim lines in urban areas dropped 24% over the same four-year period.
When it came to the gender of patients accessing telehealth services, uptake was very uneven, with 65% of all telehealth claim lines associated with females compared with 35% of males. However, as researchers noted, this stands out less given that women are generally more likely than men to visit physicians and make use of healthcare services.
According to the analysis, the age group most associated with telehealth use overall was individuals aged 31 to 40, claim lines for which made up 21% of the distribution of all telehealth claim lines, followed closely by ages 41 to 50 which accounted for 20%.
The research didn’t identify whether patients or providers are driving the growing demand for telehealth. However, the growth of telehealth delivery is likely due at least in part to growing physician interest in offering such services. One recent survey sponsored by American Well found that 69% of responding physicians were willing to offer a video visit, up from 57% in a prior study.