The pandemic as well as regulatory changes and more favorable treatment from employers created conditions in which telemedicine visits increased dramatically in March 2020.
The Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) analyzed a proprietary database containing nearly 150,000 covered lives and nearly 16 million encounters to examine trends in who uses telemedicine, which conditions patients seek to address, and whether there were factors associated with a particular visit being conducted via telemedicine.
Telemedicine visits spiked during March 2020, when states issued stay-at-home orders and health care providers suspended nearly all in-person outpatient services. While patients’ use of telemedicine for visits decreased after April 2020 from their meteoric highs, there is evidence that telemedicine visits have remained persistently higher than their prepandemic trends.
Telemedicine users tended to be older and disproportionately female relative to patients who do not use telemedicine. The vast majority of telemedicine users had only one or two encounters with a health care provider via telemedicine, possibly indicating that telemedicine services were used to address acute needs or were used as a bridge for patients with chronic conditions.
Telemedicine was used more frequently for respiratory symptoms and mental health issues, while face-to face was used more frequently for musculoskeletal and connective tissue problems.
Named policyholders were more likely to seek care via telemedicine than their spouses or dependents, perhaps indicating that named policyholders were more comfortable seeking care for themselves via telemedicine, were more familiar with their employer’s telemedicine offerings, or were better-informed at work about the cost benefits and availability of telemedicine services.
This study was conducted through the EBRI Center for Research on Health Benefits Innovation (EBRI CRHBI), with the funding support of the following organizations: Aon, Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, ICUBA, JP Morgan Chase, Pfizer, and PhRMA.