Telehealth usage soars during COVID-19

Telemedicine is seeing rapid adoption gains as physicians and patients become more comfortable using videoconferencing for telehealth visits.

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Internet-based virtual healthcare, sometimes called telehealth or telemedicine, has seen a massive increase in usage during the pandemic, according to new research.

A study by University of Michigan's National Poll on Healthy Aging (NPHA) found that a quarter of older adults aged between 50 and 80 had a virtual medical visit over a network in the first three months of the coronavirus pandemic. By comparison, in a similar poll from 2019, just 4% of people over 50 said they had ever had a virtual visit with a doctor.

"Telehealth visits have skyrocketed," NPHA said in a press release. "This has been an extraordinary time for the telemedicine movement."

One reason for the rise in telehealth usage has been the increase in public health mandates aimed at keeping as many people at home as possible to slow the virus spread. Patients have become more comfortable with the use of videoconferencing technologies, and medical professionals are offering more virtual visits. Among the survey respondents, 62% said at least one of their health providers offers telehealth visits, up from 14% of respondents in the 2019 poll.

NPHA isn't the only institution to report an escalation in virtual healthcare visits.

The University of Texas Southwestern (UTSW) Medical Center found "significant increases in the volume of new patients seen by telehealth beginning in March 2020," according to the center's press release.

UTSW conducted a study, published in Aesthetic Surgery Journal, that found the effectiveness of expanded telehealth services during the pandemic has led to an increase in patients, even in specialties such as plastic surgery.

UTSW greatly expanded its telehealth capabilities, which had been launched in pilot mode prior to the pandemic, in response to COVID-19. It delivers the virtual patient care via live video, using the BlueJeans cloud-based videoconferencing service. Mountain View, Calif.-based BlueJeans is a Zoom competitor that Verizon acquired earlier this year.

To address security and confidentiality – always a concern of the medical vertical – BlueJeans says on its website that it uses AES-256 GCM (Galois/Counter Mode) encryption, and UTSW says it disables video recording functionality. Patients mainly use their own smartphones and laptops to access the virtual care. The option to allow family members to be present in a virtual consultation has shown to be popular among patients, UTSW says.

Perhaps the most surprising benefit of UTSW's expanded telehealth services is increased conversion rates. In other words, there has been a higher percentage of completed virtual appointments than in-person appointments. The study found 25,197 of 34,706 telehealth appointments across the institution were completed in April 2020. That's a 72.6% completion rate, compared with a 65.8% completion rate of in-person visits from April 2019. "The conversion rate to telehealth is higher than in person," said Bardia Amirlak, M.D., FACS, associate professor of plastic surgery and the study's senior corresponding author.

More relaxed regulatory hurdles are also a contributor to the uptick in telemedicine visits – insurance companies and regulatory groups are more accepting of virtual consultations. There is also "an increasing comfort level with telehealth visits among physicians and patients," UTSW says, corroborating University of Michigan's view.

"We're now sustaining 25 percent of our practice being done virtually, a major win for our patients. It's changed the way we think about care," said Alan Kramer, M.P.H., assistant vice president of health system emerging strategies at UTSW and co-author of the study.

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