Telehealth often is touted as a technology tool that can help improve healthcare access, especially for vulnerable populations, and reduce costs to the healthcare system.
But patient usage of telehealth services is growing at a slow pace. Engagement is low, barely in double digits in even the most engaged demographics, according to a new survey from J.D. Power. About 10% of consumers (9.6%) have used telehealth in lieu of a doctor’s office, urgent care or emergency room visit in the last 12 months, according to the survey.
Perennial automobile rater and reviewer J.D. Power aims to set the benchmark in telehealth satisfaction with a new study due this November, similar to how the company rates cars based on owner satisfaction. The recent survey is a part of that larger study.
To bolster J.D. Power's reach into the telehealth business, the survey found that more than half of consumers (56.3%) would consider using a telehealth provider if they were ranked highest by J.D. Power.
Telehealth usage is higher among young, female patients: Patients age 18-to-24 have used telehealth more than any other age group (13.1%) and 10.4% of women have used telehealth services compared to 8.7% of male patients. Seniors (65+) have the lowest utilization rate of any age group at 5.3%. However, adults 35 to 44 show the second-highest level of engagement with telehealth, with 11.8% saying they have utilized telehealth services within the past year.
Most consumers are not aware of their access to telehealth services and this is likely slowing adoption, the survey found. Only 17% of consumers are aware that their health system or insurance provider offers telehealth or virtual health services as an alternative to a doctor's office, hospital, emergency room or urgent care clinic visit.
Close to 40% of consumers say their health system or insurance provider does not offer telehealth services, while another 34.6% said they are unaware if any service is offered.
Despite the slow adoption of telehealth services by patients, federal regulators and lawmakers are increasingly focused on telehealth as a way to improve health outcomes.
The Federal Communications Commission recently approved a three-year, $100 million Connected Care Pilot program to support telehealth and remote patient monitoring services to improve healthcare access to underserved populations.
FCC Commissioners envision the program will help to facilitate the effective treatment of chronic conditions outside of the doctor’s office at significant savings for patients and healthcare providers.
In Congress, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation to encourage telehealth innovation and improve Medicare reimbursements for connected health programs. The Telehealth Innovation and Improvement Act, introduced by Reps. John Curtis (R-Utah) and Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), would push the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to test out more telehealth models and calls for expanded Medicare coverage if the telehealth models improve care while reducing spending or staying budget neutral.
To increase telehealth usage, telehealth providers need to undertake a major education and consumer experience improvement initiative to make telehealth a standard staple for healthcare delivery among providers, J.D. Power said in the report.
"The challenge facing telehealth providers is adoption and demonstrating to their patients that telehealth provides as good, if not better, and a more accessible channel of care than traditional care channels—emergency room, urgent care and retail clinic visits," the company said.
Here are six key findings from the J.D. Power telehealth survey:
- Quality of care is a concern. Nearly half (48.7%) of respondents believe the quality of care received in a telehealth session is lower than that of a doctor’s office visit, while only 6.2% perceive the quality to be higher, and 45.1% believe it to be the same.
- Awareness is lowest in rural areas. Lack of awareness is pronounced in rural areas (72%) where telehealth is supposed to increase access. Only 8.7% of rural residents have adopted the service, compared with 11.7% of suburban and 11% of urban residents
- Consumers with poor health don't use telehealth. Zero percent of patients that indicate their health as "poor" said they used telehealth in the past year. Respondents that consider their health "very good" are the most likely to use telehealth (15.5%).
- Consumers believe telehealth is costly. Only 13.3% of consumers think telehealth is more expensive than a doctor's office visit. Nearly half (48%) think that telehealth is less expensive and 38% think it costs the same.
- Consumers are split on whether telehealth is personal. About half of consumers (49%) see telehealth as no more or less personal than a doctor's office visit also believe a telehealth session to be less personal than an office visit. Eight percent say it's more personal and 43% believe a telehealth session is less personal.
- Northeast providers face an uphill battle. Telehealth usage is highest among patients in the western region (11.1%), compared with just 5.7% in the Northeast. Awareness is also lowest at 13.6%.