UnitedHealth execs: Patients are using telehealth for convenience, not as a necessity

Telehealth use began to skyrocket back in March as patients saw virtual care as a necessity amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Patients are continuing to see doctors over video visits but for different reasons now: It's more convenient and faster than going to see the doctor in person.

This trend shows that telehealth is not just a blip on the radar and points to the future of healthcare, said Wyatt Decker, M.D., CEO of OptumHealth, a subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group, during a company briefing on the future of telehealth.

According to data from UnitedHealth Group and consumer research company CivicScience, 29% of consumers said they used telehealth in May up from 8% in December. The percentage of consumers who don't plan to use telehealth dropped from 72% in December to 47% in May, according to a consumer poll.

While COVID-19 visits accounted for nearly 1 in 5 virtual visits in March, that dropped to only 4% of visits in May.

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In March, less than half (45%) of consumers cited convenience and speed as their primary reasons for using the technology, and that grew to 66% in May.

The disruption of COVID-19 was a watershed moment in healthcare and drove patients to access care differently. The surge in telehealth could be just a waypoint back to normalcy.

But UnitedHealth's data show the telehealth sector is making inroads with specific hard-to-reach demographics, such as rural patients and seniors, according to John Walthour, vice president of research at UnitedHealth Group.

Telehealth adoption has rapidly increased among seniors, according to the company's data. And patients in rural areas also are gravitating toward telemedicine, Walthour said.

"Our nation has struggled with mightily with rural healthcare, and I think we are beginning to see increased adoption by rural community members. It points to a possible ray of light on rural health in America through telehealth and digital health," Decker said.

UnitedHealth significantly expanded access to telehealth for its 96 million health plan members, including waiving cost-sharing, expanding networks and taking advantage of regulatory flexibility from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS).

Across its UnitedHealth plans—including commercial members, Medicare and Medicaid—the number of telehealth visits tripled in the first four months of the year, Decker said.

From March to April, the number of telehealth visits doubled within the members of UnitedHealth's combined insurance groups. Across its network of providers, 265,000 health providers have conducted at least one virtual visit, up from 14,000 the same time a year ago.

In its OptumCare provider business, the organization stood up 10,000 providers on telehealth solutions in about six weeks for a total of 14,000 clinicians that now have the capability to provide virtual care.

"Half a million virtual visits have been conducted by our providers since April 1," Decker said, noting that physicians, along with patients, have become more accepting of remote care.

RELATED: As COVID-19 isolates patients, telehealth becomes lifeline for behavioral health

As COVID-19 isolated patients at home, telehealth became a lifeline for mental and behavioral health needs.

Optum has expanded the availability of telehealth visits, including growing the number of providers available to see patients virtually. More than 200,000 Optum behavioral health providers can deliver care through alternative technologies like telephone visits or video chat services.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, about 2% of all behavioral health claims Optum received were for a telehealth visit. By the end of March, approximately 33% of all behavioral health claims for Optum members were for a telehealth visit.

"That is a dramatic shift in how people are receiving mental health and substance use disorder care," Decker said.

These trends represent a "historic shift" in both patients' and providers' willingness to embrace virtual health technologies, and that's driving a surge in technology that surrounds these virtual visits, such as remote monitoring devices and home health technologies, he said.

Questions remain about whether payers like UnitedHealth will continue to pay for virtual care at parity to in-person clinic visits.

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Decker said the industry would likely see a "leveling out" from CMS and other payers for parity payments.

"There are good cases to be made, certainly during COVID-19, that moving to parity was a great idea and helped to accelerate adoption. That being said, over time, you can see telehealth visits tend to be shorter and a bit more focused than an office visit for the same kinds of concerns. There's a reasonable case to examine that and find the right balance. I expect that will be a national conversation we’ll be having," he said.

What also remains to be seen is whether telehealth improves the quality and affordability of healthcare, Walthour said.

"We assume it lowers the cost of care but is just adding another step? Does telehealth make the patient experience better or create bureaucratic hassle?" he said.

There continues to be a significant amount of patients who want the human touch of a face-to-face visit with a clinician.

"The onus is on technology and provider companies to increase access, increase the personal touch, and increase that sense of trust and user experience. If this movement is done well, it will do that," Decker said.