Medicare beneficiary use of telehealth shot up 63-fold in one year during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that shift was accompanied by a 16.1% drop in use of in-person services, according to a new federal report.
Telehealth use surged from about 840,000 virtual visits in 2019 to almost 52.7 million in 2020, an indication that the Medicare population is ready to embrace the technology.1 Specifically, the report found that following the expansion of Medicare telehealth flexibilities in 2020 amid the pandemic:
- Beneficiary use of telehealth for specialist appointments rose to 16.6 million, a 38-fold increase from the year before
- Use of telehealth for behavioral health specialist appointments rose to 10.1 million, a 32-fold increase from the year before
- Use of telehealth for primary care rose to 26 million, a 24-fold increase from the year before.2
The CMS has made recent efforts to encourage the use of telehealth among Medicare beneficiaries, such as eliminating geographic barriers and allowing in-home access to telehealth services for mental health treatment.1 The agency has also said other Medicare services added to the telehealth services list temporarily during the public health emergency will remain available through Dec. 31, 2023, while officials determine whether to add them permanently to the Medicare telehealth services list.2 As the agency weighs that decision, CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure said it will use the report to further guide the agency’s Medicare telehealth policies.3
The report noted that although many beneficiaries experienced improved access and took advantage of telehealth services, more research is needed to determine telehealth’s impact on care quality, as well as why some regions and demographics use it with less frequency.2
For example, states saw variations in usage due to regulatory differences, and urban Medicare beneficiaries used telehealth about 50% more than their rural counterparts.1 The report also found that 4.7% of Black beneficiaries had a visit via telehealth compared with 5.3% of white beneficiaries.2 Meanwhile, 6.2% of Hispanics and 6.4% of Asians had a visit via telehealth.2
As Medicare beneficiaries quickly and increasingly embrace telehealth, Medicare Advantage plans should fast-track their efforts to refine and target these offerings, ensuring they provide their members with preferred, convenient and safer options for health care.
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- Vaidya, A. Telehealth use among Medicare patients skyrocketed 63-fold last year. mHealth Intelligence. Dec. 6. https://mhealthintelligence.com/news/telehealth-use-among-medicare-patients-skyrocketed-63-fold-last-year
- Samson, L., Tarazi, W., Turrini, G., Sheingold, S. Medicare Beneficiaries’ Use of Telehealth in 2020: Trends by Beneficiary Characteristics and Location. ASPE Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. Dec. 3. https://aspe.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/documents/a1d5d810fe3433e18b192be42dbf2351/medicare-telehealth-report.pdf
- New HHS study shows 63-fold increase in Medicare telehealth utilization during the pandemic. HHS. Dec. 3. https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2021/12/03/new-hhs-study-shows-63-fold-increase-in-medicare-telehealth-utilization-during-pandemic.html