Research Offers Details On Exploding Telehealth Use

We all know that telehealth use has been mushrooming as providers struggle to address the demand for coronavirus care. However, the data is starting to come out on how much the use of telehealth has changed. These new studies look at the extent of telehealth use during the pandemic.

One physician-focused study comes from healthcare IT firm MTBC and their recently acquired CareCloud. The survey, the COVID-19 Practice Pulse, found that in-person appointment cancellations shot up starting in mid-March, especially in Pennsylvania (48%), followed by New York and California (both at 43%)

Meanwhile, telehealth appointments have increased by more than 200x as a percentage of all appointments, up from below 0.1% during the first week of March.

By this point, researchers found, 61% of practices had have converted to full or partially telehealth-based services. Urologists, dermatologists and mental/behavioral health clinicians topped the list of specialty adoption, with each leading specialty now seeing 25% to 40% of their patients in recent weeks.

Related data underscoring the expansion of telehealth use comes from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, which reports that it has seen 250,000 new claims filed for telephone and video visits during March. The March statistics represent payments of almost $800 million to physicians and hospitals. The health plan has also seen 50,000 new claims for COVID-19 testing and care.

In response to this new wave of telehealth billing, the health plan is waiving standard administrative barriers to reimbursement (such as prior authorization and referrals) for medically appropriate testing, counseling, vaccines when available and treatment for COVID-19.

In addition, the health plan is covering all medically necessary services provided by phone or via video visits with in-network providers at no cost to members. It is also reimbursing these visits at the same rate as face-to-face care for any provider assuming that the provider meets clinical standards.

This data is worth considering as health plans, providers and governmental organizations continue to manage the evolving threat posed by the pandemic. In particular, it’s useful to learn just what volume of telehealth appointments providers are delivering under current circumstances.  Plus, it’s great to see at least one commercial payer embracing telehealth.

What’s even more important is whether existing telehealth systems, bandwidth, IT support and other resources can sustain such dramatically increasing levels of usage. This is particularly the case where independent practices are concerned, especially smaller organizations. While groups owned by health systems may have access to the resources they need to support increases in telehealth demand, it’s unclear whether practices without deep pockets will be able to keep up the pace.

Until the threat imposed by the coronavirus lessens, it will be important for policymakers and health plans to help keep practices on their feet, including ongoing support for telehealth. Otherwise, when the threat subsides, we may be left with an infrastructure that can’t support even everyday care.

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.