The technology is there. The funding is nearly there. The health providers are getting there.
But a new national poll suggests that people over 50 aren't quite ready to fully embrace virtual health visits, also known as telehealth, with their doctors and other providers.
Only 4% of those polled by the National Poll on Healthy Aging had a video-based telehealth visit with a provider via smartphone or computer in the past year. Their reactions were mixed.
Meanwhile, more than half of all those polled didn't know if their health providers offer telehealth visits at all. More than 80% of older adults polled expressed at least one concern about seeing a doctor or other provider virtually rather than in person. And 47% worried about getting the technology to work.
But more than half said they'd be willing to try telehealth in some situations -- for instance, if they got sick while traveling or needed follow-up on previous care.
The poll, carried out by the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation with support from AARP and Michigan Medicine, U-M's academic medical center, involved a national sample of more than 2,250 adults aged 50 to 80. They answered questions about many aspects of video-based telehealth.
Among the one-third of poll respondents whose health providers don't yet offer telehealth, 48% said they'd be interested in trying it with their primary care provider. But fewer would try it for specialty or mental health care.
Focusing on certain types of telehealth visits might allow older adults to get comfortable with the idea and realize its value, the analysis found. And the numbers indicate they'd be open to it. About 64% of respondents said they'd be interested in telehealth options if they became unexpectedly ill while traveling, and 58% said they'd be interested in using it for a return visit after seeing a provider in person for a health issue.
But 71% were concerned that providers couldn't do a physical exam over a webcam or smartphone camera, and 68% worried the quality of care they'd receive wouldn't be as good. Among the small minority who had used telehealth, 58% said they felt that office visits offered better quality of care. Nearly half were concerned about privacy.
WHAT'S THE IMPACT
Telehealth as a concept has been around for decades, but has lagged in development until state and federal laws, and insurance plan coverage, aligned with the technical capability of health providers and consumer electronics. The poll was taken in spring of 2019, as many new policies and coverage provisions began to kick in.
Some of those changes will specifically affect older adults. Starting in 2020, Medicare Advantage insurance plans will be able to reimburse healthcare providers for seeing patients via computer or smartphone. Veterans have increasing access to telehealth, as do people who receive their health coverage through their employer or Medicaid.
But providers that have begun to offer telehealth options may need to do a better job of letting their older patients know it's an option, and helping them understand how it works, the poll suggests.
THE LARGER TREND
From 2016 to 2017, private insurance claim lines for services rendered via telehealth -- as a percentage of all medical claim lines -- grew 53% nationally, more than any other venue of care, according to FH Health Indicators, a white paper published in March by the nonprofit FAIR Health.
From 2016 to 2017, by comparison with telehealth's 53% growth rate, national usage of urgent care centers increased 14%, that of retail clinics 7% and of ambulatory surgical centers 6%. The usage of ERs decreased 2%.
As the telehealth model gains traction, the focus is shifting away from the novelty of connected devices and new technology and more toward providing patients with top notch care -- and giving providers, physicians and nurses alike, the power to deliver it effectively.