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

Hispanic patients took to telehealth for behavioral health needs in greater numbers than other racial groups last year, according to new data from Anthem.

The analysis includes data on Medicaid members in 14 states and found that while telehealth visits for mental health were in the single digits prior to the pandemic, use rose to account for nearly half (49%) of all Medicaid mental health visits in a six-month window last year.

Hispanic people were already using telehealth at higher numbers than other groups pre-pandemic, according to the study, but COVID-19 significantly boosted use for behavioral health needs. Amid the pandemic, 40% of Hispanic members in the study had a telehealth visit, compared to 34% of white members.

In addition, 33% of Asian members and 28% of Black members had a telehealth visit for mental health needs, according to the study.

"While telehealth wasn’t a panacea in eliminating health equity gaps, it helped boost connectivity for all and made Internet visits possible when COVID temporarily closed physical doors, allowing health care to continue to be delivered with some semblance of normalcy,” said Anthem Chief Health Officer, Shantanu Agrawal, M.D., in a statement.

“This study is a key reminder that technology alone won’t be sufficient to bridge this gap and the bridge may not be the same for all people. However, it may be the connector needed by certain communities or geographic areas. Clearly, outcomes during the pandemic would have been much worse without telehealth," Agrawal said.

RELATED: Telehealth use falls 37% from pandemic highs, while demand for healthcare services projected to flatten: report

While telehealth visits did help address gaps in care, it did not fully replace missed in-person visits under the pandemic, according to the study. There were also notable racial gaps in use that were identified in the study.

For example, Black patients had the lowest combined rate of visits before the pandemic, with 56% reporting an in-person or telehealth visit, and the rate only declined amid COVID, down to 49%.

Black members also had 7% fewer mental health visits than white members with a similar socioeconomic, demographic and clinical background. This is despite research suggesting people of color experienced higher levels of stress and behavioral health challenges in 2020.

"There are likely many reasons behind the differences in mental health care visits – including issues that prevent people from seeking care, such as medical injustices and a history of receiving culturally insensitive care,” Agrawal said.

“Health equity is a key driver for mental and physical well-being. To achieve equity in our healthcare, we need to understand where and why barriers to health exist, and then couple these insights with the scale and scope of Anthem to drive changes to a new system of health, that puts equity at the center," Agrawal said.