Endocrinologists and gastroenterologists were the specialty clinicians that used telemedicine the most last year during the onset of the pandemic, a new study found.
The study, released Tuesday in the journal Health Affairs, gives a look at who flocked to telemedicine from January to June 2020 and what types of patients employed the technology. The COVID-19 pandemic and new flexibility from the federal government led to massive increases in telemedicine use across the healthcare industry.
“Telemedicine use during COVID-19 varied across different clinical settings and patient populations, with lower use found among insurance enrollees in disadvantaged areas,” the study said.
Before COVID-19 hit the U.S., fewer than 2% of clinicians in each of the specialties examined used telemedicine. There was an exception among mental health clinicians like psychologists (4.4%) and psychiatrists (5.5%).
Researchers analyzed outpatient visit volume for telehealth from Jan. 1 to March 17 and from March 18 to June 16—when COVID-19 had spread—last year.
In the COVID-19 period, telemedicine was used at least once by 67.7% of endocrinologists who were surveyed, making them the clinicians that used the technology the most. Gastroenterologists (57%), neurologists (56%) and pain management physicians (50%) also were specialists that used telehealth frequently.
The specialty that used telemedicine the least was optometry, with 3.3% of clinicians using it at least once, and physical therapy was low as well at 6.6%.
Researchers also looked at the characteristics of patients who got care via telemedicine during the period. There were more than 16 million people in the sample. Nearly 80% of the patients were commercially insured, and nearly 90% of them lived in an urban area.
The study also found that telemedicine use was lowest in communities that had a higher poverty rate, with 27.9% of patients in those communities not using it. However, 31.9% of patients that did use telemedicine were from a community with a low rate of poverty.
“There are concerns that increased use of telemedicine during the pandemic may exacerbate health disparities because of the ‘digital divide’ defined as the absence of necessary broadband or smartphone technology among disadvantaged populations,” the study said.
The study comes as the healthcare industry moves to make permanent the explosion of telehealth use caused by the pandemic. Healthcare groups are pressing Congress to make some of the flexibility given by the federal government permanent.