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COVID-19 and the rise of telehealth

COVID-19 and the rise of telehealth

COVID-19 has transformed every aspect of daily life. From how we engage with friends and family to the total disruption in how we learn, work and play, we’ve all had to reimagine what each day may look like.  

And, of course, the way we think about our health and how we connect with doctors and providers has changed completely.  

As we close in on two years since the WHO first declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, we wanted to look back at how the healthcare landscape has evolved over time and make some predictions for what the future may hold.  

Today and over the next few days, we’ll be exploring some of the technology that has grown to prominence, the healthcare specialties most impacted by the pandemic and the new ways patients are connecting with their physicians. Our first stop on this journey is the explosive rise of telehealth and the incredible amount that we have learned in a short period of time about which specialties are most suited to using this technology.  

Telehealth was already primed to grow before COVID hit 

The benefits of telehealth services and other virtual care tech have been championed by healthcare providers for years before the pandemic. COVID-19, however, was the catalyst for telehealth’s rapid growth and adoption.  

We tracked the significant rise of telehealth encounters by year in the bar chart below.  

A bar chart showing telehealth encounters by year

It’s clear to see that, as a response to lockdown measures and social distancing guidelines brought on by the pandemic, telehealth adoption skyrocketed in 2020, resulting in an 8,336% national increase over 2019. We can also see that telehealth encounter volume has dipped in 2021, but we’ll dig into that in the next post of our series!  

Why have so many providers adopted telehealth technology? 

There are many reasons why telehealth adoption experienced such a sharp increase in 2020. Here are just a few: 

  1. Being able to talk to your doctor and receive care over the phone or a computer is convenient and accessible for anyone with an Internet connection. 
  2. Telehealth helps patients connect with their doctors no matter where the office is located. Providers can use telehealth as a tool to expand their outreach beyond their normal territory, and patients can see doctors who may have once been too far away to justify the trip. 
  3. Receiving care over telehealth means that patients can more easily fit a doctor’s appointment into their workday.  
  4. Robust telehealth software platforms help providers collect, interpret and share diagnostic data and other types of patient info.  
  5. With the support of remote patient monitoring devices, physicians can more effectively track their patient’s healthcare journey, better understand their medical history and manage their conditions intelligently.  

All of these reasons and more position telehealth services as a care option providers can use to help reduce operating costs and lower readmission rates. In addition, patients might prefer receiving care through telehealth over a face-to-face visit in their own home, at an urgent care facility, or at the doctor’s office for these very same reasons. We’ll explore the different ways patients are receiving care in future posts.  

What conditions are patients using telehealth to treat? 

To answer this question, we looked at the top primary specialties with the most providers using telehealth services and the top telehealth diagnoses. We’ve included snapshots of the top five for each below.  

Top 5 physician specialties with the most providers using telehealth services 

RankPrimary specialtyNumber of providers
1Social Worker 13,408 
2Psychiatry 10,670 
3Nurse Practitioner 8,613 
4Psychology 7,859 
5Family Practice 4,262 

Fig. 1 Data is from the Definitive Healthcare PhysicianView product. Telemedicine Insight Scores are proprietary and aggregated from commercial claims data from multiple medical claims clearinghouses in the United States. Data accurate as of October 2021. Want the full list? Check it out here.

Top 5 telehealth diagnoses in 2021 

RankICD-10 code ICD-10 descriptionTotal telehealth  visits
1F411Generalized anxiety disorder  1,932,948   
2I10  Essential (primary) hypertension  1,080,589  
3F331  Major depressive disorder, recurrent, moderate  912,063  
4F419  Anxiety disorder, unspecified  837,671  
5F4310  Post-traumatic stress disorder, unspecified 606,826

Fig. 2 Data from Definitive Healthcare’s Medical Claims database. Data is from January – April 2021. Commercial claims data is sourced from multiple medical claims clearinghouses in the United States. Data is updated monthly—accessed May 2021. Want the full list? Check it out here.

While telehealth is likely being used to manage a wide variety of conditions, both tables reveal that telehealth services are potentially highly effective when treating patients with mental health conditions.  

Finally, we calculated the number of patients treating their mental health conditions over telehealth compared to in-person visits.  

a bar chart showing patients using telehealth for mental health conditions

From the chart, we can see that April 2020 was a breakthrough month, with a jump from 15% to 48% of patients with mental health conditions using telehealth to treat their condition.  And these numbers remain high over time. 

Why is mental health treatment well-suited to telehealth? 

Telehealth might be such an effective option for treating patients with mental health conditions for many of the same reasons providers have adopted the technology. It’s convenient and accessible to large portions of the population.  

Digging deeper, it’s also likely that telehealth can make it easier for patients to overcome the barrier of stigma. Patients who feel reluctant or uncomfortable to discuss their condition in person may find it easier in the safety, security and privacy of their own homes.

In addition, patients with severe neurological disorders or physical limitations may find the remote treatment more accessible and convenient. According to the American Psychiatric Association, the effectiveness of telepsychiatry in particular “is comparable to in-person care in terms of therapeutic engagement, quality of care, validity/reliability of assessment and clinical outcomes.”   

Despite a meteoric rise, the future tells a mixed story for telehealth 

By 2021, there was a staggering number of patients using telehealth services to connect with their physicians. However, with a few exceptions such as mental healthcare, the volume of patient visits across healthcare specialties began to decrease and eventually plateau throughout the year.  

To us, this information reveals that while telehealth is proven to work in some specialties, it’s not always the best solution. In our next post, we’ll explore specialties telehealth isn’t well suited for and why telehealth won’t be replacing other care options.  

As the healthcare landscape continues to shift, healthcare providers will need to consider how best to integrate telehealth technology into their business strategy. Robust healthcare commercial intelligence can help these organizations and healthcare IT vendors capitalize on new growth opportunities, better understand the market and make more informed decisions.  

Learn more

This post is the beginning of a special series of blogs examining the technologies and healthcare specialties impacted by COVID-19 and the new ways that patients are receiving care. Our next post will put a close on telehealth’s story for now and we’ll shift to how patients and providers are leveraging in-home care options and urgent care facilities. You can start with the next post or jump to any that pique your interest.  

Each post in this series draws upon healthcare commercial intelligence from our platform to illustrate how the COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped the healthcare market. You can learn more by starting a free trial.

Todd Bellemare

About the Author

Todd Bellemare

Todd Bellemare is the Senior Vice President of Strategic Solutions for Definitive Healthcare. With more than 22 years working in the healthcare technology and analytics…

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