- Despite a month of stability, telehealth claim lines as a percentage of all medical claims dropped 10% from May to June, according to new data from nonprofit Fair Health.
- Virtual care claims fell from 5% of all medical claims in May to 4.5% in June — the lowest level recorded by Fair Health since the pandemic started, though still well up from before COVID-19 hit the U.S. By comparison, telehealth use had previously risen 2% from April to May, following three prior months of declines.
- The drop-off occurred across all four census regions, with the sharpest decrease in the Northeast. There, utilization plummeted almost 12% from May to June, according to the report released Thursday.
Spurred by necessity, telehealth use skyrocketed last year as patients — amid lockdowns, a pause in non-emergency procedures and fears of in-office virus transmission — turned to digitally delivered care for their medical needs. But as the U.S. began to get a slight hold on the pandemic and vaccination rates rose, telehealth utilization has steadily declined since early this year, leading many to wonder how much demand for virtual care will remain once COVID-19 is no longer a crisis.
Fair Health has used its database of over 34 billion private claims records to analyze the monthly evolution of telehealth since last May. According to the nonprofit's tracker, telehealth usage peaked in the privately insured population last April before declining through September. Use spun up again in October as cases rose in the winter months. Despite a brief uptick in May, telehealth claims have continuously ticked down since January.
That drop-off in telehealth demand was expected as the U.S. tries to get the pandemic under control. But it's as of yet unclear how the recent increase in cases due to the highly infectious delta variant will affect telehealth demand as, over the course of the pandemic last year, virtual care use appears to have been tied to oscillating COVID-19 infections, rising and falling as caseloads do.
There's a general consensus in the industry that telehealth use will never fully revert to its low pre-pandemic levels, but market watchers are curious where demand will stabilize, with the question having huge implications for the sustainability of the current telehealth boom.
The first half of 2021 blew past 2020's record for digital health funding, with a whopping $14.7 billion, as investors scrambled to get a piece of the red-hot market.
However, research such as Fair Health's could throw cold water on the activity, along with recent estimates pegging telehealth use at about a fifth or fewer of all medical visits, significantly down from last year's peak.
Telehealth for patient visits seems to have leveled off at 20% or fewer of hospital appointments, according to a survey from KLAS Research and the Center for Connected Medicine, while consultancy McKinsey said in July telehealth use is ranging from 13% to 17% of visits across all specialties.
But virtual care continues to gain ground in certain clinical specialties, especially mental health, Fair Health found.
The percentage of telehealth claim lines associated with mental health conditions — the No. 1 telehealth diagnosis — continues to rise, jumping from 60.4% of telehealth claims in May to 61.3% in June.
Also from May to June, joint and soft tissue diseases rose in the rankings of the top five telehealth diagnoses nationally and in every region but the West. Nationally, joint and soft tissue diseases rose from No. 4 on the list in May to No. 3 in June, while acute respiratory diseases and infections also rose from No. 3 in May to No. 2 in June.
Urinary tract infections appeared in the list of top five telehealth diagnoses in the South in June, the first time the diagnosis showed up in the regional or national lists since the start of the pandemic.