Survey: Roughly 1 in 7 people got low acuity care via telehealth instead of going to ER

Senior patient consulting with doctor online during telehealth visit
New survey results showed how telehealth can help steer patients away from emergency departments for getting low acuity care. (Geber86/GettyImages)

Telehealth use last year helped to cut down on the amount of low acuity emergency department visits, helping address a persistent problem that hospitals have faced for years, a new survey found.

The survey released Wednesday from the Bipartisan Policy Center also showed that a high percentage of adults are likely to use telehealth in the future even when the pandemic recedes.

“New telehealth flexibilities have allowed millions of Americans to access healthcare from home, and as our survey shows, telehealth has the potential to take non-emergency cases out of the emergency department,” said Marilyn Serafini, the center’s health project director, in a statement.

The survey of nearly 1,800 adults was conducted in June and July and found one-third used telehealth over the last year. Nearly half of those adults (44%) were on Medicare as the federal government gave providers more flexibility to get Medicare reimbursements for telehealth.

About one in seven people surveyed who used telehealth said they would have gone to the ED or urgent care if the service was not available.

“The most common purpose for a telehealth visit was a preventive service, prescription refill, or routine visit for a chronic illness (63%),” according to a release on the survey.

RELATED: Anthem study: Telehealth helped address pandemic health disparities, but gaps remain

ED volumes plummeted at hospitals across the country at the onset of the pandemic as fear spread among patients of contracting the virus. While volumes for inpatient and outpatient care rebounded after declines in March and April of 2020, ED volumes have remained low.

Patients had already been shifting away from going to the ED for low acuity conditions. A 2018 study found that the use of non-ED acute care venues like urgent care centers increased by 140% from 2008 to 2015.

The survey also found that rural residents were more likely to use telehealth for surgical consults than people who lived in non-rural areas.

The results come as providers are making a major push to Congress to make telehealth flexibilities permanent. Flexibilities that make it easier for providers to get Medicare reimbursement for telehealth will expire after the COVID-19 public health emergency, which is expected to run through the rest of the year.