The rise of telehealth in the United States

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JD Power, a consumer research firm, released its 2022 U.S. Telehealth Satisfaction Study. The analysis revealed several key trends in Americans’ growing use of telehealth.

For one thing, the majority of study participants – 67% – had used telehealth in the past year. In comparison, before the onset of the pandemic, only 37% of study participants had used telehealth in 2019. Additionally, of those who received telehealth services, 94% said they would “definitely” use or “probably” telehealth in the future. About 61% of respondents said the main reason for using telehealth was convenience, fast service and easier access to health information.

The extenuating circumstances created by COVID-19 have accelerated the pace of telehealth adoption. And this trend should continue. Last July, the US House of Representatives passed a Medicare bill that continues the practice of reimbursing healthcare practitioners for telehealth services. This policy change began during the pandemic to promote social distancing by decreasing the number of in-person clinic visits. The bill also continues to allow Medicare beneficiaries to receive health services anywhere, including their workplace, car, or the comfort of their home. Without these extensions, health care providers would be forced to see their Medicare patients in an approved clinical setting. Many people hailed the bill, which passed with bipartisan support.

As a patient, I have had many positive experiences with telehealth. Before the pandemic, I ignored well-meaning check-up reminders because I just couldn’t find the time to go on an appointment. I’ve even seen a few doctors diagnose themselves and prescribe their own medications because they didn’t want to cancel their clinic schedule to see a doctor for their own condition. After COVID-19 hit, I finally had the opportunity to go to a doctor’s appointment without leaving work, thanks to the convenience of telehealth. I saw more health care providers in the second and third years of the pandemic than I had seen in previous years.

When one of my long-term telehealth providers offered me the opportunity to come into their office for a follow-up appointment, I realized that I had grown accustomed to receiving care in the comfort of my office. or my house. I didn’t want to go through the little inconveniences of walking to the office, connecting with the receptionist, and waiting in unfamiliar chairs to be called. I politely declined the offer.

And while I love telehealth as a patient, from a medical practitioner’s perspective, I’m a bit more ambivalent. Most physicians, myself included, didn’t receive formal telehealth training in medical school, so many of us had to learn and adapt our practice on the fly. There is currently no widely accepted standard for conducting telehealth visits. Also, there are many things I cannot do during a telehealth visit that I could easily do during an in-person visit, such as performing physical exams, performing minor in-office procedures, or performing a bedside diagnostic test.

When a patient describes a new problem through a message, phone call or video chat, I worry that something is lost in translation or that I may miss an important detail. If the problem has any potential to cause lasting damage, I ask patients to come to the clinic so I can take a closer look. More than once, I had to change my initial understanding of the problem by seeing them in the exam room.

Of course, the challenges of telehealth will largely depend on the specialty. It is very likely that less physics-based specialties, such as psychology or psychiatry, work better in a telehealth format. For example, in the JD Power research referenced above, 57% of study participants said they would prefer virtual visits over in-office visits for mental health visits.

Ultimately, COVID-19 forced us to open Pandora’s telehealth box, and it’s here to stay. There will no doubt be some setbacks along the way, including misdiagnoses leading to delays in care. However, we must weigh these potential pitfalls against the fact that telehealth will make it easier for patients to access their providers. Looking ahead, patients should be aware that some key details may be lost through the phone or screen, and healthcare providers should work to develop best practice guidelines based on evidence to optimize telehealth visits.

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