1 in 5 physicians use telehealth. Burnout may drive more adoption, survey says

About 1 in 5 physicians currently use telehealth to care for patients—up from about 5% in 2015—and that figure is expected to soar within the next few years, a new survey from telehealth company American Well found. 

By 2022, more than half of physicians (61%) who are not currently using telehealth indicated they are either very likely or likely to start using telehealth representing half a million doctors, according to the survey, which polled 800 physicians. 

Among physicians who have tried video visits already, 15% currently use it two times a week or more—a figure that is projected to grow to 50% by 2022.

The survey also revealed that physician willingness to use telehealth is up to 69% from 57% in 2015 as physicians cite benefits like increased access for patients, the ability to attract and retain new patients and a more flexible work-life balance. Physicians are adopting telehealth much faster than they adopted electronic health records at a similar stage of market development, according to Sylvia Romm, M.D., vice president of clinical transformation at American Well.

"Physicians' increased willingness to see patients over video, in addition to the increasing physician shortage, high burnout rates and a more favorable reimbursement landscape, signals a boom in virtual visits over the next several years. It's exciting to be a part of such a significant movement," Romm said in a statement.

The survey revealed a correlation between physicians' interest in using telehealth and physician burnout. Specialists which are among the most burnt out according to an Advisory Board Company survey, including urologists, emergency medicine physicians, infectious disease specialists, and pediatricians, are also the top specialties willing to practice via telehealth, according to the American Well survey.

​​​​​​RELATED: Trump administration finalizes MA telehealth benefit policy

Among the physicians using telehealth visits, 93% said it improves patients' access to care, 77% said it contributes to more efficient use of time for doctors and patients and 71% said it helps to reduce healthcare costs. Sixty percent of physicians said using telehealth enhances the doctor-patient relationship.

Younger physicians are more willing and less unsure about telehealth compared to older physicians. As older physicians retire, it is expected that physician willingness will continue to increase, and uncertainty and resistance to decrease, according to the survey.

Notably, newer physicians (aged 25-34) were somewhat less willing to use telehealth compared to other young physicians (aged 35-44), possibly because these physicians are still learning their craft and thus less confident about new technology.

RELATED: Industry Voices—How technology is helping to provide affordable access to care for Hispanic families

However, the survey revealed a large gap between willingness to use telehealth and actual telehealth usage due to uncertainty around reimbursement with 77% of physicians citing those questions as a hurdle.

The survey notes that the tide is beginning to turn as telehealth continues to receive increased levels of reimbursement. For example, the Trump administration recently finalized a rule that enables Medicare Advantage (MA) plans to add additional telehealth benefits starting in the plan year 2020. Forty-eight states offer provider reimbursement for some form of live video visit in Medicaid fee-for-service and many states now require private payers to cover telemedicine.

Physicians also are concerned about the clinical appropriateness of telehealth, cited by 72% of surveyed doctors. Other concerns include a lack of physician buy-in and poor leadership support, according to the survey.

American Well outlined steps health systems can take to promote physician adoption of telehealth:

  • Creating integrated workflows: Physicians must be able to seamlessly document in the EHR while launching and delivering video visits. Telehealth-EHR integration can also help health systems combat physician burnout by making telehealth a convenience instead of a nuisance.

  • Defining clinical appropriateness: Increased education in medical schools, residency programs, and CME classes could help to address this knowledge gap. Physicians should be involved in efforts to develop and implement telehealth clinical guidelines.

  • Program leadership: Engage executives in the telehealth program to send a message to physicians that it is a system-wide priority. Also seek out and encourage specialist telehealth champions and assist them with finding where telehealth fits into their practice.