It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted medical practice and led to a surge in telemedicine visits. A new report issued by the health care social network Doximity in September predicts that these changes will be permanent, and that the telehealth industry will more than triple from $29 billion at the end of this year to about $106 billion by 2023.
The report, titled “2020 State of Telemedicine,” follows a similar 2019 publication and captures the changes created by the pandemic. “Obviously, telemedicine has been around for many years, but the pandemic around COVID-19 has really changed the game. Something that had been getting gradual adoption really rocketed to the forefront,” said Peter Alparin, MD, who is an internist in San Francisco and vice president of product at Doximity, in an interview. The report predicts that 20% of medical visits will be conducted through telemedicine by the end of 2020.
Gastroenterology is one of the top specialties to adopt telemedicine, ranking third behind endocrinology and rheumatology, and that should come as no surprise. “Chronic disease patients lend themselves well to telemedicine because they have ongoing relationships with their physicians, so they can be seen more often and it’s more convenient for them. The specialties that take care of patients with those sorts of illnesses were the ones that adopted it the most readily,” said Dr. Alparin.
That’s probably in part because specialists dealing with chronic conditions have been triaging patients with telephone calls for years, making it easier to tell when a patient needs to come in for a physical visit. “It’s a skill you learn, to tell when something is just a little bit different for a patient. It’s really a clinical judgment that has been honed over years of experience,” said Dr. Alparin. The report backs up that idea, as it found that the physician age groups that most often adopted telemedicine were those in their 40s, 50s, and 60s.
Telemedicine is popular with patients once they try it, and it can greatly expand a physician’s reach, according to Dr. Alparin. “If you’re a specialist, you can perhaps see patients in areas where that specialty is underrepresented, whether that’s the inner city or a very rural area,” he said. The most important barrier is high-speed Internet access, which remains a problem in many areas.
Doximity researchers surveyed more than 2,000 U.S. adults to get their opinions on telemedicine, and analyzed telemedicine adoption data from the platform’s own set of telemedicine tools, and compared it to data from the 2019 report. They also reviewed studies looking at disparities in medicine and patient access to telemedicine.
Telemedicine use among patients grew from 14% before the pandemic, to 35% who reported at least one telemedicine visit after COVID-19. A total of 23% said they planned to continue use of telemedicine after the pandemic ends, and 27% said they had become more comfortable using telemedicine. Among patients, 28% said telemedicine provides the same or better benefit as an in-person visit, and this rose to 53% among those with chronic illnesses.
Among physicians, telemedicine adoption rose by 20% between 2015 and 2018, but increased by 38% between 2019 and 2020. The highest percentage of physician telemedicine adopters were in large metro areas and East Coast states, led by Massachusetts, North Carolina, and New Jersey. None of the top 10 adopter states were west of Illinois.
Equity concerns remain: 64.3% of households with annual incomes of $25,000 or lower have access to broadband internet, compared with 93.5% of those with incomes of $50,000 or lower. In nonmetropolitan areas, 78.1% of households have access, compared with 86.7% of metropolitan households. The good news is that many patients prefer cell phone use for telemedicine, and nearly as many Black and Hispanic Americans own cell phones as White Americans. “That has really democratized access,” said Dr. Alperin.
A key to successful telemedicine appointments is to make sure that the patient is prepared, according to Dr. Alparin. Make sure the patient is in a relatively quiet, well-lit place, and that they have thought about the questions they want to ask. It’s possible to replicate some aspects of a physical appointment with the right conditions. “You can visualize how they move their arms and legs; you can see how they’re breathing. You can gain a lot of information by just watching somebody,” said Dr. Alparin. A physician might also spot clues in the patient’s surroundings. “If a patient is asthmatic and you see cats walking all over the place, or a patient is allergic to gluten and they have loaves of bread everywhere,” he added.
A big concern for telemedicine has been reimbursement. In response to the pandemic, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services created a number of waivers to requirements for billing for telemedicine services, and private insurers followed suit. In August, the agency announced it would make some of those waivers permanent, though others such as removal of restrictions on the site of care, eligible providers, and nonrural areas will likely require an act of Congress to enshrine, CMS administrator Seema Verma told reporters at an August.