Telemedicine Use During the First 2 Months of the Pandemic Did Not Offset the Drop in In-Person Visits

January 18th 2021
Alana Hippensteele, Editor

During the first 2 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans reduced their in-person preventive and elective health care visits and increased telemedicine appointments.

During the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, many patients in the United States reduced the number of in-person preventive and elective health care visits and increased the number of telemedicine appointments. However, an analysis of the data from March and April 2020, which were the first 2 months of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, found that the switch to telemedicine was not sufficient enough to offset the overall reduction in visits.

The analysis of the data was pulled from the medical records of approximately 5 million Americans with private health insurance and demonstrated that the number of mammograms and colonoscopies decreased by approximately 65%, as these types of elective medical care were not easily transferable to a telemedicine format. Overall, use of preventive and elective health care by patients declined by 23% in March and by 52% in April.

However, in lower-income or predominately non-white zip codes, there was a lower reduction in in-person care in addition to lower rates of telemedicine use. The authors who published these findings in JAMA Network Open noted that this is another example of how the COVID-19 pandemic intensified existing disparities related to health care.

"This adds detailed evidence to the anecdotal reports that Americans quit going to see the doctor when the pandemic shutdown started," said lead author Christopher Whaley, PhD, a policy researcher at the nonprofit research organization RAND Corporation, in a press release. "If important visits are only delayed for a few months, there will likely be no harm. But if patients do not get important screenings, there could be long-term negative health consequences."

Although other studies have analyzed data from this same period, most have assessed data from a single health system or geographic market in order to observe the impact of COVID-19 on the utilization of medical services. In this study conducted by Whaley and his colleagues, the researchers used insurance claims data from 2018 to 2020 from approximately 200 employers across the country.

The results of the study demonstrated that when compared to the rates in March and April 2019, colonoscopies decreased by approximately 70% during March and April 2020. When conducting the same comparison for mammograms, the researchers observed a 67% decrease among women aged 46 to 64 years.

Additionally, utilization of blood sugar tests decreased by approximately 50%, vaccinations among children under age 2 decreased by 22%, and angioplasty procedures decreased by approximately 17%. Surgeries such as musculoskeletal surgery and cataract surgery, as well as MRIs, all decreased by 45% or more. However, only a small decreased was observed in utilization of chemotherapy treatments.

In April 2020, use of telemedicine appointments increased by over 4000% when compared to April 2019. Yet, this significant increase in telemedicine visits replaced only approximately 40% of the decline in in-person visits during this period.

Notably, the authors observed that patients living in lower-income or predominately non-white zip codes had approximately a third lower increase in telehealth visits than those who lived in the wealthiest neighborhoods.

"The extent to which access barriers to telemedicine contribute to lower rates of in-person care deferral, and thus increases in potential exposure to COVID-19, should be examined in future work," Whaley said in the press release.

REFERENCE

Health care use drops during pandemic; switch to telemedicine creates disparities. Rand Corporation; November 5, 2020. https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-11/rc-hcu110320.php. Accessed January 18, 2020.

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