Telehealth use for outpatient visits remains elevated, KFF study finds

Telehealth use has decreased since the start of the pandemic but levels remain elevated compared to pre-COVID levels, a new Kaiser Family Foundation analysis has found.

The survey assessed telehealth use from March 2019 through August 2021 using data from Cosmos, an Epic dataset, for more 41 million outpatient visits. The study is relevant only to the population studied and not weighted to be nationally representative. 

Outpatient telehealth visits declined a year into the pandemic compared to the first six months, from 13% to 8% as a share of all outpatient visits. But before March 2020, telehealth use was less than 1%. While pre-pandemic volumes of outpatient visits have been restored, telehealth visits remain elevated, making total outpatient visits 19% higher in March to August 2021 than the same period in 2019.

RELATED: Top health experts talk telehealth regulation, health inequality

Patients in rural and urban areas had similar rates of telehealth use, as did men and women. Younger people had higher retention rates of telehealth since the pandemic peak at higher rates, particularly those 18 or under, than seniors. Potential drivers could include the enrollees' comfort with the technology, internet access and the types of services used, the study noted. 

While the use of telehealth for chronic conditions has decreased substantially compared to the early days of the pandemic, levels remain elevated. The condition most reliant on telehealth is obesity, according to the study. In the early stage of the pandemic, asthma followed second, whereas March to August 2021 myocarditis and cardiomyopathy followed second.

The study acknowledged that questions remain around telehealth’s ability to reduce overall health spending and improve outcomes, though there is potential, depending on the circumstance.

“Going forward, it’s not clear what role telehealth will play, and for what types of health services,” the study noted. Payers’ coverage and licensing policies are sure to affect telehealth use going forward.