Telehealth usage surged during the pandemic, HHS reports, leading to tens of millions more visits since 2019. Here are the top five diagnoses made through telehealth in September—with one in particular dominating the rest.
Telehealth use has surged during the pandemic
According to a new HHS report, telehealth use increased 63-fold during the pandemic. The report, which was prepared by HHS' Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, analyzed Medicare fee-for-service data for 34.9 million beneficiaries in 2019 and 2020.
Overall, the report found that Medicare telehealth visits increased from approximately 840,000 in 2019 to 52.7 million in 2020. In particular, behavioral health saw the highest telehealth utilization, increasing 32-fold from 2019 to 2020. Overall, visits to behavioral health specialists made up a third of all telehealth visits in 2020, compared with 8% of visits to primary care providers and 3% of visits to other specialists.
"During the Covid-19 pandemic, various telehealth flexibilities enabled patient access to their providers," said Rebecca Haffajee, HHS assistant secretary for planning and evaluation. "Pre-pandemic telehealth visits for Medicare beneficiaries went from hundreds of thousands to tens of millions, with many utilizing telehealth for the first time. [This] report offers a detailed data analysis on important trends for policymakers."
According to MedCity News, CMS will use the report to help determine future telehealth policies. "[The HHS] report provides valuable insights into telehealth usage during the pandemic," said CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure. "CMS will use these insights—along with input from people with Medicare and providers across the country—to inform further Medicare telehealth policies."
Telehealth flexibilities added during the pandemic will extend through Dec. 31, 2023 to give time for an evaluation, Healthcare Finance reports.
The top 5 telehealth diagnoses in September
Mental health conditions continue to be the top diagnosis in telehealth nationwide, Modern Healthcare reports. According to FAIR Health's "Monthly Telehealth Regional Tracker," which analyzes data from privately insured populations, mental health diagnoses made up 61.2% of all virtual care claims in September.
Krista Drobac, executive director of the Alliance for Connected Care, said telehealth services have likely made it easier for people seeking mental health services to access care, overcome stigma, and receive more consistent care—leading to higher use.
"There's none of the broader social perception that goes along with the challenges of people seeking mental health care," said Tom Kiesau, senior partner with the Chartis Group. "Historically, in a virtual setting, it is protected and private."
In addition, FAIR Health found Covid-19 fell out of the top five telehealth diagnoses nationwide between August and September. According to Drobac, this decrease in virtual Covid-19 diagnoses may be due to the fact that more people are now vaccinated and may be experiencing less acute symptoms.
Instead, the top five diagnoses made through telehealth in September include:
- Mental health conditions
- Acute respiratory diseases and infections
- Developmental disorders
- Joint/soft tissue diseases and issues
- Substance use disorders
According to Kiseau, many patients may still be hesitant to return to in-person office visits, but have a high level of satisfaction with their care through telehealth. He added that health care facilities with the most flexibility for both in-person and virtual care will likely see more patient volume over time.
"Consumers ultimately dictate how business is delivered and transformed, based on their demands for convenience and for simplicity," Kiseau said. (Morse, Healthcare Finance News, 12/6; Reuter, MedCity News, 12/6; Broderick/Goldman, Modern Healthcare, 12/3; FAIR Health release, 12/6; Devereaux, Modern Healthcare, 12/6; FAIR Health Monthly Telehealth Regional Tracker chart, accessed 12/7)