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Most consumers want to keep telehealth after the COVID-19 pandemic

Almost 88% of Americans want to continue using telehealth for nonurgent consultations after COVID-19 has passed.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

(Photo by Aekkarak Thongjiew/Getty Images)(Photo by Aekkarak Thongjiew/Getty Images)

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth was more of a novelty than a necessity. The concept of touching base with a doctor remotely was promising, but there were hurdles.

Now, though, with many of those hurdles at least temporarily lifted – due to policy changes at the federal level – more consumers have received a taste of what telehealth is like. And most liked it, at least enough to want to keep using it after the pandemic has become a memory.

That was the main finding of a new Sykes survey that polled 2,000 Americans in March on how their opinions on virtual care have changed within the past year. And it comes at a time when most Americans have now experienced telehealth in some form: In March 2020, fewer than 20% had experienced a telehealth appointment. By March of this year, more than 61% had undergone a telehealth visit.

Numbers recorded over that same time period suggest virtual care is resonating with patients. A year ago, about 65% of Americans felt hesitant or doubtful about the quality of telehealth, and 56% did not believe it was possible to receive the same level of care as compared to in-person appointments. 

Now, almost 88% want to continue using telehealth for nonurgent consultations after COVID-19 has passed, while almost 80% say it's possible to receive quality care.

WHAT'S THE IMPACT?

The pandemic created a need for safe, distant medical care and advice. And necessity is the mother of invention – or in this case, adoption. Suddenly, millions of patients who were once walk-ins became logins, and soon all that was necessary to get a quality check-up was a stable WiFi connection.

The survey dug into some of the factors prompting patients to overwhelmingly opt for virtual visits. A significant number, 61%, experienced telehealth for the first time because their physician's office moved their appointments to virtual visits.

Twenty-eight percent said it was a convenient option for immediate care, while about 24% proactively asked their physicians office to switch to virtual appointments.

About 18% made the switch after reading more about telehealth, 17% were persuaded by people they know, and 12% became convinced to try it after learning more about it from broadcast news.

Of those who haven't yet tried telehealth, more than 77% say they're more willing to do so due to the pandemic, as compared to 59% a year ago. Meanwhile about 40% feel that the quality is comparable to an in-person visit, a 9% jump from 2020.

Further data details the extent to which Americans are warming to telehealth. Eighty-five percent say it has made it easier to get the care they need; 62% said they were afraid of going to the doctor, but those fears were eased during their telehealth visit; 51% say they're able to see their doctor more often; 31% say their healthcare costs have decreased; and 31% feel their doctor comes across as more empathetic during virtual visits.

Three-quarters said they believe telehealth will become the norm for nonurgent medical consultations after the pandemic, and about 65% said they'd prefer to have parts of their annual physical done remotely.

THE LARGER TREND

In 2020, virtual care was expected to account for more than 20% of all medical visits in the U.S., which in turn is projected to drive $29 billion in total healthcare services.

Those numbers were revealed in September in Doximity's 2020 State of Telemedicine Report, which also found that up to $106 billion of current U.S. healthcare spend could be virtualized by 2023. This highlights the high rates of adoption among both patients and physicians, and the impetus felt among providers to offer safe, secure and easy-to-use virtual services as demand for telehealth continues to grow.

Still, access issues persist, with a February Health Affairs study finding that telehealth usage during the pandemic was lower in communities with higher rates of poverty, suggesting a digital divide that still needs to be addressed.

Twitter: @JELagasse
Email the writer: jeff.lagasse@himssmedia.com