Physician telehealth use up 340% since 2015, survey finds

By | April 18, 2019

Dive Brief:

  • Physician adoption of telehealth shot up 340% from 5% to 22% between 2015 and 2018, a new American Well survey of 800 physicians shows.
  • Doctors’ willingness to use the technology grew during that same period from 57% to 69%, driven by the desire to improve access, reduce burnout and improve patient outcomes according to the survey, which was released Tuesday at the American Telemedicine Association annual conference in New Orleans.
  • Yet despite increasing enthusiasm about telehealth, barriers to adoption remain, including uncertain reimbursement, clinical use cases and physician buy-in.

Dive Insight:

The findings are in line with recent reports showing a growing embrace of telemedicine among both providers and consumers. According to a recent Vidyo survey of clinicians, IT and telehealth administrators and hospital C-suite leaders, telehealth is the No. 1 IT priority of large healthcare systems. Of those already using telehealth, live video is most popular method at 46%, followed by remote patient monitoring at 41%.

But hurdles to telehealth adoption remain. More than three-fourths (77%) of survey respondents said uncertain reimbursement continues to be an issue, while 72% cited questions about clinical appropriate of telehealth. Other major barriers include lack of physician buy-in (60%) and lack of or poor support from leadership (44%).

But insurance barriers may be easing somewhat. A study last fall published in JAMA found annual telehealth visits among commercially insured patients increased from 206 in 2005 to about 202,300 in 2017, largely fueled by payer coverage for direct-to-consumer telehealth encounters.

To ease adoption, 34 states and the District of Columbia have passed telehealth parity laws. Such laws require insurers to pay similar rates for in-person medical visits and telehealth visits, providing an incentive for providers to offer telehealth services.

Reasons for adopting telehealth vary, but almost all respondents (93%) in the American Well survey cite increased patient access to care. Other top benefits include more efficient use of time for the doctor and patients (77%), lower costs (71%), better communication with patients (71%) and enhanced doctor-patient relationships.

Of the 800 physicians surveyed, 62.5% are primary care doctors and 37.5% are specialists. Among specialists, willingness to practice via telehealth is greatest among specialties with high burnout rates, but those same groups also have surprisingly low adoption rates. For example, while 91% of urologists report a willingness to use telehealth, the highest of any specialty, 9% have actually used it. Nearly as many emergency medicine physicians (89%) say they would use telehealth, but only 11% have done so.

Psychiatry is the only specialty with both high willingness and usage among practitioners — aligned evenly at 80% each.

Still, telehealth appears to be on an upward trajectory, the survey shows. With 22% of physicians using video visits today and roughly half of those surveyed saying they are “likely” or “very likely” to use it within three years, the share of doctors practicing telehealth could hit 61% by 2022 — or between 341,000 and 591,000 physicians.

And it’s not just an uptick in numbers of doctors using telehealth, but more frequent usage among those who do. More than five in 10 respondents say they expect to conduct video visits more than twice a week three years from now, up from 15% who said they used that option frequently in the past year.

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