Virtual Health Care Grows with Pandemic

The use of telemedicine skyrocketed early in the COVID-19 pandemic, with remote office visits and outpatient services 78 times higher in April 2020 vs. February 2020. It has stabilized since that extraordinary rise but remained at 38 times the pre-pandemic level as of July 2021.1

Telemedicine, also called telehealth, offers a way for patients to interact with doctors or nurses through a website or mobile app using a secure audio or video connection. Patients have immediate access to advice and treatment any time of the day or night, while avoiding unnecessary and costly emergency room visits. But telemedicine is not only for emergency or off-hours situations; it also can be a more convenient and cost-effective way to get medical care that might normally be handled in a doctor’s office.

Telemedicine can be used to treat minor health problems such as allergies and rashes, or for an urgent condition such as a high fever. It also makes it easier to access therapy for mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. In other cases, doctors can remotely monitor the vital signs of patients with chronic conditions or follow up after a hospital discharge, and physical therapists can lead patients through exercises and monitor their progress. Telemedicine can also fill gaps in the availability of specialty care, especially in rural areas.

In 2021, 28% of large employers (500 employees or more) offered a virtual behavioral health care network, 25% offered targeted virtual health solutions to address specific conditions such as diabetes or musculoskeletal problems, and 16% offered a virtual primary care service or network. About 12% of eligible employees used some type of telemedicine service in the first half of 2021.2

Original Medicare and Medicare Advantage plans also cover a wide variety of telehealth services. Some of these were specifically added to coverage because of the pandemic and are scheduled to expire at the end of 2023.3 Considering the convenience and cost-savings associated with telemedicine, it is possible they will be extended, but that remains to be seen.

If your health plan includes telemedicine services, you might take a closer look at the details, download the app, and/or register for an online account. This way, you’ll be ready to log in quickly the next time you or someone in your family faces a medical problem.