Researchers at the University of Michigan, analyzing Medicare data through 2021, are reporting that the traditional Medicare population used telehealth during the pandemic to access care, but they haven't been overusing the platform.
A popular criticism of telehealth is that people will be using it more than they should, leading to unnecessary healthcare appointments and expenses. But researchers at the University of Michigan say that's not true in the Medicare market.
An analysis of Medicare data through 2021 finds that while virtual visits have increased considerably as a result of the pandemic, with roughly one-third of traditional Medicare members taking part in at least one telehealth visit last year, those numbers aren't excessive. This means that the Medicare population, comprised primarily of older Americans, is using the platform to replace in-person care, rather than just because they can.
“As telehealth use hits its stride in the Medicare fee-for-service population, the fears that flexible telehealth rules might lead to an increase in the total volume of outpatient visits has not panned out,” Chad Ellimoottil, MD, MS, director of the Telehealth Research Incubator at UM's Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation and lead author of the study, said in a press release. “With all the evidence we have to date, it appears that telehealth has been used as a substitute for in-person care rather than an expansion of care.”
The distinction is important, especially as the nation moves away from the pandemic and the healthcare industry looks to adopt a long-term telehealth strategy when the public health emergency ends. Advocates say telehealth should be a standard practice of care, comparable to in-person care and regulated along the same lines. Opponents argue the platforms is ripe for misuse and abuse, and that it should be governed more strictly to prevent waste and abuse.
Ellimootil and his colleagues found that about 9% of all outpatient appointments made by people with traditional Medicare coverage were virtual in the latter half od 2021. That represents a decline in virtual visits compared to the time period between mid-2020 and mid-2021, but a large increase compared to prior to the pandemic in 2019.
The surge in telehealth use during the pandemic was helped by a series of federal and state waivers aimed at increasing access to and coverage of telehealth, so that health systems could protect their staff and isolate those infected by the COVID-19 virus from others. Those waivers will end with the end of the PHE, and telehealth supporters want new or revised regulations in place to continue the momentum and allow health systems to continue their programs.
Eric Wicklund is the Innovation and Technology Editor for HealthLeaders.