When the pandemic and lockouts first began, telehealth utilization soared to unprecedented levels. But while telehealth use remains well above pre-pandemic levels, thanks in part to relaxed Medicare coverage rules, the initial wave steadily ebbed starting in May 2020, reaching a post-pandemic low in October to November 2021. Who knew that it would all change on a dime the very next month?
In November to December, telehealth accounted for 4.9 percent of all US medical claims, as compared to 4.4 percent in November, a single month increase of more than 11 percent, according to new data from independent nonprofit FAIR Health, known for its collection and accessible communication of medical claims data. Telehealth utilization was up in every US census region, with the South experiencing the highest increase at 18 percent.
The reason for the new surge is no mystery: Omicron. Treatment and diagnosis of COVID-19, namely the Omicron variant, was listed among the top five telehealth diagnoses across the US during the month. Continuing long-term patterns, mental health was the number one overall telehealth diagnosis. However, the percentage of all telehealth claims generated by mental health fell, especially in the South where mental health constituted less than 50 percent of all telehealth claim lines.
While the Omicron surge at the end of 2021 will likely prove no more sustainable than the surge fueled by the initial outbreak, there can be no doubt that telehealth use is here to stay and will continue steady growth in endemic conditions.