- Telehealth usage expanded by more than 7,000% across the U.S. in 2020, compared to the year before, according to nonprofit Fair Health's fifth annual healthcare indicators report. The newly released report, culled from a database of 36 billion private insurance claims, documents the tremendous scale up of virtual care in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, when hospital services were limited or patients avoided in-person visits to decrease their risk of infection.
- The extent of the telehealth surge contrasts with declines in utilization in all other places where patients received healthcare that were studied in the report. Utilization fell 38% in ambulatory surgery centers, 30% in emergency rooms, 16% in urgent care centers and 4% in retail clinics in 2020 versus 2019.
- Fair Health also tracks monthly telehealth claims as a percentage of all medical claims. By that measure, telehealth claims climbed 10% from December to January, the third consecutive monthly increase since hitting a pandemic low in October.
The question of what telehealth demand will look like when the COVID-19 pandemic subsides is on the minds of providers, patients and regulators as the public health emergency extends into a third year. The phenomenal growth of the telehealth industry during the pandemic was supported by an easing of regulations that allowed for greater access and reimbursement.
Many consumers and providers who have embraced online care are lobbying legislators to expand telehealth access once the national health emergency ends. Leading telehealth vendor Teladoc, optimistic about its prospects in 2022, in February issued projections for strong revenue growth as it plans for more expansion in the year ahead.
Fair Health said telehealth use increased in January in every U.S. region (Midwest, Northeast, South and West), with the greatest increase (17.5%) in the West, as the wave of omicron cases continued. Social worker was the leading telehealth specialty nationally, followed by primary care physician, psychiatrist, psychologist and primary care non-physician.
Mental health conditions remained the top telehealth diagnoses in January across the country, while COVID-19 ranked second, Fair Health said.
In the 2020 data analysis, the nonprofit also examined gender patterns in healthcare service. The report found that more claim lines (defined as an individual service or procedure listed on an insurance claim) were submitted for women than men in most age groups in retail clinics, urgent care centers, telehealth, ASCs and ERs, which was also true of previous years.
However, in some places of service, such as retail clinics, urgent care centers, ASCs and ERs, the gap between males and females narrowed. In ERs, in the 61-70 age group, the male and female shares were equal at 50% in 2020, a change from 2019, when the female share was 52% and the male share was 48%.
Exposure to communicable diseases joined the list of most common diagnostic categories in retail clinics, urgent care centers and telehealth in 2020, driven by testing or treatment for COVID-19.