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The COVID-19 pandemic has seen telehealth evolve from a niche curiosity to a mainstream care model, and while it still enjoys widespread popularity, its appeal has dimmed somewhat, finds a new Rock Health report.

On the whole, consumers remain highly satisfied with telehealth. In 2020, 53% of respondents to Rock Health’s annual survey said they were more satisfied with live video virtual care than in-person interactions. 

This satisfaction decreased somewhat in 2021, however, with just 43% of respondents reporting the same.

The hypothesis posited by Rock Health is that as the pandemic evolved, consumers began to view telehealth as an alternative to in-person care rather than a necessary replacement. Some of the satisfaction patients felt toward the beginning of the pandemic may have been rooted in gratitude at having any care options at all.

Either way, physicians’ attitudes toward virtual care mirror these trend lines. In 2020, 64% of physicians viewed telehealth favorably. This year, that number dipped slightly to 58%.

Another possible explanation for the decline among patients is changing usage. In 2020, 33% of telehealth users primarily employed the technology for medical emergencies. Fast forward to 2021, and 32% of users harnessed telehealth for minor illnesses, 20% for medical emergencies and 18% for chronic conditions. This perhaps is a better reflection of the technology’s current strengths as a care model well-suited for low-acuity issues.

Despite these shifts, though, satisfaction remains higher for those using telehealth for emergencies (77%) than for minor illnesses (37%) or chronic conditions (28%).

WHAT’S THE IMPACT

Even though overall satisfaction has dipped, 73% of previous telehealth users still expect to use it at the same rate or more in the future. To sustain this level of interest, Rock Health surveyors believe it will be important for innovators to personalize the technology and tailor it to unique and distinct care needs, eschewing the one-size-fits-all approach.

Fulfillment is another driver of satisfaction, so it will likely be imperative that telehealth efficiently and effectively guide patients from a healthcare need to the fulfillment of said need – the better to sustain patients’ perceived value of the technology. That means ease, speed and personalization of care navigation all the way through care delivery.

Still, the numbers highlight some access inequities that have yet to be overcome. Rock Health’s data showed that telehealth users tend to be younger consumers (ages 18-44) with higher incomes and education levels. Non-white patients were also significantly more likely than their white-only counterparts to use virtual care; 70% of white-only respondents reported telehealth use in 2021, compared to 87% of Hawaiian Native and /or Pacific Island respondents, 79% of Black respondents, 79% of Native American and/or Alaska Native respondents, 78% of Adsian respondents and 73% of Hispanic respondents.

The anticipated use of telehealth was less common among older patients, those with lower incomes and those with lower educational attainment.

THE LARGER TREND

An AMA Physician Practice Benchmark Survey from September found that 70.3% of physicians now work in practices that used videoconferencing to provide patient visits in September 2020, – compared to only 14.3% in September 2018.

Videoconferencing is a favored means of patient consults for significant numbers of dermatology practices (87.3%), urologists (87.2%), pediatricians (82.9%) and cardiologists (82%). More than 80% of family and general practice physicians (80.9%) and nearly 80% of internists (76.6%) also conduct routine video visits.

In spite of those numbers, telehealth utilization fell 10% nationally from May to June 2021 after a month of stability, according to FAIR Health’s Monthly Telehealth Regional Tracker, released in September.

Twitter: @JELagasse
Email the writer: [email protected]



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