New research shows that telehealth use by patients with commercial health insurance is for general health and behavioral health issues—and also minimal.

Telehealth continues to get lots of attention as a quicker, faster, cheaper and more convenient way to deliver healthcare.

But despite the promise telehealth technology holds, the growing willingness of the federal government and states to pass telehealth laws and a preponderance of vendors, the use by patients with insurance is nascent.

Although telemedicine use increased substantially from 2005 to 2017, use was still uncommon by 2017.

Recently, a team of researchers from Harvard Medical in conjunction with the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and others looked at 12 years of data to find out how far along patients with commercial health insurance are in using telehealth. The sample research was small. Researchers look at claims submitted to an unidentified commercial health insurer from patients with coverage through that carrier and Medicare Advantage, which pays for managed healthcare based on a monthly fee per enrollee, rather than on the basis of billing for each medical service provided for unmanaged healthcare services.

Over 12 years, researchers examined 383,565 telehealth visits by 217,851 patients and devised a formula to develop the number of telehealth visits per year per 1,000 plan enrollees. The research found that even though use of telehealth was growing at a compound annual rate of about 54% from 2005 to 2017, the actual increase in yearly telehealth visits among all plan members was small—from about 0.2 visits per 1,000 enrollees in 2005 to about 6.75 visits per 1,000 enrollees in 2017.

“Although telemedicine use increased substantially from 2005 to 2017, use was still uncommon by 2017,” says Harvard assistant professor of health policy and management Michael Barnett in a research note posted in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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Researchers also found that patients (more female than male), under the age of 40 and living in a city were the biggest telehealth users. The median age of the patients studied for the telehealth research was 38, 63% were female and 83% lived in an urban area.

The research also found that telehealth use by patients with commercial health insurance also was for general health and behavioral health issues.

The findings include:

  • Most telemedicine visits were for treatment for mental health (53%) compared with 49% for primary care visits.
  • Primary care telemedicine visits grew 36% annually before 2016 and then increased sharply to 136,366 visits in 2017. In comparison, telehealth for behavioral health episodes grew 56% annually to 57,095 visits in 2017. By 2017, primary care telemedicine was the most frequently used form of telemedicine, according to the research.
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