Access to physicians via telehealth is still “uncommon” despite laws passed in more than 30 states requiring health insurance coverage and payments to virtual medical care providers, new research published in JAMA indicates.
The new research, which offers a snapshot into one health plan’s experience, comes as telehealth companies like American Well, MDLive and Teladoc Health and an array of startups sign deals with commercial health insurance companies, offering their subscribers access to physicians via smart phone, tablet or computer. Employers are also embracing the trend as a way to make healthcare more convenient and avoid costly and unnecessary trips to the emergency room or a more expensive physician’s office.
But the analysis in JAMA led by researchers from Harvard University indicates telehealth by commercially insured Americans is still a small percentage of enrollees in one large health plan.
“Annual telemedicine visits among all members in this health plan increased from 0.020 to 6.57 per 1,000 members between 2005-2017, with the largest increases in use beginning in 2015,” a summary accompanying the JAMA research letter said. “Most telemedicine users lived in urban areas, although the attention given to telemedicine is often to encourage its use in rural settings.”
Researchers analyzed claims from 2005-2017 from an OptumLabs Data Warehouse trove of privately insured and Medicare Advantage plan enrollees in a “large, private U.S. health plan.” Researchers wouldn’t say what plan’s claims were analyzed.
Access to medical care providers tended to be for mental health care when telehealth first began to grow but primary care has since become the most frequently used form of telehealth, the JAMA report shows.
“Most telemedicine visits were either telemental health (53%) or primary care telemedicine (39%),” Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health researcher Dr. Michael Barnett and colleagues wrote in a research letter published in the November 27 issue of JAMA. “ Primary care telemedicine visits grew 36% annually before 2016 and then increased sharply to 136 366 visits in 2017, while telemental health grew 56% annually to 57 095 visits in 2017 . By 2017, primary care telemedicine was the most frequently used form of telemedicine.”