When the public health emergency for COVID-19 was first declared in the US at the end of January 2020, the federal government expanded coverage for telemedicine just under two months later, leading, unsurprisingly, to a surge in telehealth use. But, once the pandemic fully recedes, what does the future hold for telemedicine use in the country? A recent paper posted on the preprint server medRxiv on June 21 offers some insight that may help guide permanent telemedicine policies.
The research explored telehealth trends from 2021 and whether use of telehealth has caused an increase in the overall volume of healthcare services. Looking at Part B claims for one hundred percent of Medicare fee-for-service beneficiaries, the University of Michigan research team identified all evaluation and management (E&M) services beneficiaries received from January 1, 2019, through December 31, 2021. From that information, they calculated how much of those services were provided in person versus through telehealth services.
- The total number of all outpatient E&M services declined from 289.0 million in 2019 to 255.2 million in 2020, but rose to 260.7 million in 2021
- Monthly telehealth visits reached their highest number (7.2 million) in April 2020, after which a slow decrease was observed through the end of 2021
- Though monthly telehealth visits made up just over half of all monthly E&M services in April 2020, during the second half of 2021, they made up only 8.5 percent to 9.5 percent of monthly E&M services
From these results, yet to be peer reviewed, the researchers conclude that increased telehealth flexibilities from the COVID-19 pandemic have not led to an increase in the overall volume of outpatient E&M services that Medicare beneficiaries are receiving, though at least one other study has shown that telehealth visits have led to increased in-person visits for certain patients.
“These findings should mitigate some concerns about the impact of telehealth on overall healthcare utilization,” the authors state.