- COVID-19 was no longer among the top five telehealth diagnoses nationwide in September, though use of virtual care rose overall, according to new data from nonprofit Fair Health.
- In August, COVID-19 was among the top five diagnoses nationally and in every U.S. census region except the Northeast. In September, the only region where the it ranked in the top five was the Midwest.
- However, national telehealth use (measured as a percentage of all medical claim lines) rose more than 2% in September for the second straight month as the delta variant gained a foothold in the U.S. following a sustained period of decline early this year.
COVID-19 spurred unprecedented telehealth use last year, but it's still unclear how much consumer demand and access will remain after the national public health emergency ends. Use of virtual care as tracked by groups like New York-based Fair Health steadily declined during the first half of 2021 as the country got a tenuous hold on the pandemic.
New cases dropped amid widespread vaccinations and so, too, did telehealth use, which appears to be tied to oscillating COVID-19 infections, rising and falling as caseloads do.
Fair Health used its database of over 34 billion private claims records to analyze the monthly evolution of telehealth since last May. The nonprofit in July reported telehealth use had hit the lowest level since the pandemic started, though overall remained significantly elevated from 2019's volume.
But then the more highly infectious delta variant began spreading in earnest in August, which — among stubborn vaccine hesitancy in some demographics — contributed to yet another coronavirus surge in the U.S.
Demand for telehealth seems to have recovered, too, though fewer people used virtual care for COVID-19 itself.
In September, telehealth use rose by 2.3%, jumping from 4.3% of all medical claim lines in August to 4.4% in September. That followed a rise of 2.4% in August. Utilization also grew in September in the Midwest and West, though the South saw no change and the Northeast actually reported a decrease.
From August to September, mental health conditions increased in percentage share of all telehealth claim lines nationally and in every census region. This was a change from July to August, when the diagnosis declined in percentage share of all telehealth claim lines.
Mental health conditions remain the top-ranking telehealth diagnosis nationally and in every region as the coronavirus continues to exacerbate conditions like depression and anxiety. Patients have turned to virtual care in droves as a relatively easy and inexpensive avenue to receive therapy and other treatments, resulting in skyrocketing investments in such services from telehealth vendors.
Also from August to September, substance use disorders joined the top five telehealth diagnoses nationally, and rose from the fourth to the third most common telehealth diagnosis in the Northeast.
The pandemic has acutely worsened substance use in the U.S. In November, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data finding more than 100,000 Americans died from an overdose in the 12 months ended in April 2021, up 29% from the previous year. Experts attributed the jump in part to pressures from the pandemic.
Though it seems more people are turning to telehealth to access treatment for substance use disorders, access can be extremely uneven across different states.
A recent report in JAMA Health Forum found all states and Washington, D.C., have put at least one telehealth policy in place, but only 17 have plans that improve access to treatment for new patients.