By A.J. Hanna, vice president client advocacy, SYKES.
People’s knowledge of telehealth isn’t necessarily leading to usage — at least, that is what we found at SYKES as a part of our survey on attitudes toward telehealth. Telehealth, in its purest form, has existed for decades. Physicians, whether by phone, radio, or other forms of transmission, have been calling on clinicians from outside of their communities to assist them with second opinions or provide specialty expertise for many years.
And while the internet has opened up new and more expansive opportunities for telehealth — including making it easier for the remote caregiver and the patient to interact via both video and audio — regulatory restrictions, reimbursement inconsistency, attitudes toward effectiveness and other factors have prevented it from finding its full promise.
COVID-19 and its ability to spread easily and rapidly has pushed the healthcare system in the United States and around the world to take a more expansive view of how telehealth can be used. Given the growing importance of this tool for triage of those potentially infected by the novel coronavirus, we wanted to first assess how many people even knew what telehealth was.
When presented with the question, “Telehealth is the use of communication technologies to support long-distance health care, instead of an in-person appointment. Are you familiar with telehealth?,” over 42 percent of those contacted for this survey were not even aware of the service (in excess of 1400 people). While usage of telehealth services has increased over the last several years, there are still many people who do not equate services available to them as being telehealth.
Of those few in our survey who knew what telehealth was and had actually used the service, satisfaction rates were very high. This follows trends from other studies that find that telehealth satisfaction levels exceed other parts of the healthcare industry. And not surprisingly, the primary benefit that they cite is the ability to avoid being with others in a clinical waiting room. But for those who had not been engaged in a telehealth visit, or had not considered the service, some expressed concern that telehealth would only be effective for minor illnesses and diagnoses. Others felt that a diagnosis would be difficult without the “touch and feel” aspect of a care visit.
Perhaps not surprisingly, respondents in the 55+ age group were less likely to have used telehealth or expressed concerns about its effectiveness. Because many in the upper level of this age group are likely Medicare beneficiaries, and because coverage by Medicare has been restricted to specific conditions, geographic regions and care settings, this is not surprising. Recent decisions by the federal government to relax restrictions for Medicare coverage of telehealth as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic may help to close the gap in utilization represented in our survey.
If there is any outcome of the current pandemic as it relates to telehealth, it may be that it will encourage more people to consider using it. Nearly 60 percent of respondents indicated that COVID-19 has made them more likely to consider using a telehealth service in the future. Almost 25 percent of our respondents had not linked COVID-19 to their opinion of using telehealth. However, those numbers will surely change as the health system in the United States continues to utilize all means necessary to care for the health of people in ways that prevent further spread of the disease.