The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic halted traditional visits to clinics and doctors’ offices for many consumers. Whether it was due to stay-at-home orders or fear of exposure on the part of consumers and healthcare providers, traditional face-to-face healthcare encounters became infrequent – especially from March-May 2020. Meanwhile, temporary changes to regulations and laws permitted health plans to significantly expand virtual healthcare coverage and provide consumers an opportunity to access care from the safety of their home. This includes virtual visits with healthcare providers via phone or video as well as email discussions between providers and patients.
Before the pandemic, polling indicated wide consumer support for virtual care, but only 10 percent of all consumers had experienced a virtual health encounter. Notably, more than half of seniors expressed interest in virtual services, despite the fact that Medicare rules have been slow to encourage widespread virtual care adoption.[i],[ii] In 2016, less than 0.5 percent of Medicare fee-for-service beneficiaries reported having a virtual healthcare encounter each year.[iii]
However, the pandemic created an opportunity to make virtual care more accessible to many more Medicare beneficiaries, which in turn raised questions about who used these services, and what types of conditions were treated. To begin to answer these questions, and to help inform public policy discussions regarding the future of virtual care, the Anthem Public Policy Institute analyzed data from Anthem’s affiliated Medicare Advantage (MA) plans. The analysis focused on virtual care delivered to MA members during the early months of the pandemic in the U.S.
Use of virtual care grew exponentially among MA members from January to May of 2020. Further, around 600,000 virtual services were provided in March-May 2020 compared to a mere 4,400 during the same months in 2019. It’s important to note, however, that within the MA population, use of virtual care differed across demographic groups. For instance, in March-May 2020, older members used a smaller share of virtual services when compared to younger MA members.
There was a wide range of conditions treated virtually, including mental health and substance use disorders, cardiovascular ailments, and musculoskeletal conditions. Notably, when compared to the same time period in 2019, the volume of virtual services for mental health and substance use disorders jumped by over 5,000 percent in 2020. Overall, a large portion of virtual care – more than two-thirds – was used to manage chronic health conditions.
Though use of in-person care has largely returned to normal in the second half of 2020, virtual visits continue at higher levels than prior to the pandemic. Ongoing access to virtual care that is convenient, affordable, and fully technology-enabled has the potential to transform the U.S. healthcare system, but more effort is needed to understand consumers’ preferences for and obstacles to adopt virtual care.
[i] American Well. (2019, August). American Well’s 2019 Consumer Survey Finds Majority of Consumers Open to Telehealth, Adoption Continues to Grow. Retrieved June 25, 2020 from: https://business.amwell.com/press-release/american-wells-2019-consumer-survey-finds-majority-of-consumers-open-to-telehealth-adoption-continues-to-grow/.
[ii] J.D. Power. (2019). U.S. Telehealth Satisfaction Study. Retrieved June 25, 2020 from: https://www.jdpower.com/business/healthcare/us-telehealth-satisfaction-study.
[iii] Medicare Payment Advisory Commission. (2018, March). Mandated Report: Telehealth Services and the Medicare Program. Retrieved June 25, 2020 from: http://www.medpac.gov/docs/default-source/reports/mar18_medpac_ch16_sec.pdf?sfvrsn=0.