AMA Survey Charts Explosive Growth of Telehealth Services in 2020
The American Medical Association's new Physician Practice Benchmark Survey shows a surge in telehealth adoption between 2018 and 2020, driven by the shift from in-person to virtual care during the pandemic.
By Eric Wicklund
Telehealth use by physicians jumped from 25 percent in 2018 to almost 80 percent in 2020, while almost 85 percent of psychiatrists connected with the patients via video visit or telephone during the height of the pandemic, according to the American Medical Association.
The data contained in the AMA’s latest Physician Practice Benchmark Survey falls in line with dozens of similar studies and surveys, all showing that the use of connected health platforms soared last year as providers looked to shift as much care as possible from in-person to virtual care.
Drawing from the responses of thousands of post-residency physicians across the country, the survey found that video-based visits jumped from 14.3 percent in 2018 to 70.3 percent in 2020 while 67 percent connected with patients last year via phone. Almost 60 percent used telehealth in 2020 for chronic care management, up from about 20 percent in 2018, and the amount of physicians who used telehealth to diagnose or treat patients increased from 15.6 percent to 58 percent.
Remote patient monitoring jumped as well, with 20 percent of physicians say they used RPM in 2020, almost twice as many as in 2018. Broken down further, one-third of specialists used RPM, led by cardiologists (63.3 percent) and endocrinologists and diabetes care physicians (41.6 percent).
The use of asynchronous, or store-and-forward, telehealth didn’t change much over the past few years, suggesting that much of the growth in telehealth was tied to reducing in-person care.
Physicians also turned to telemedicine to consult with colleagues, though not as much as they use the technology to connect with patients. Some 26.2 percent worked in a practice that used videoconferencing to consult with colleagues in 2020, up from 11.6 percent in 2018, with 17.2 percent using the platform to consult with other healthcare professionals (11.6 percent in 2018) and 12 percent using the platform for second opinions (6.9 percent in 2018).
Broken down into physician types, psychiatrists were most likely to adopt telehealth, while the three categories of primary care specialties – pediatricians, family/general practice physicians and general internists – all scored above 76 percent. Pediatricians were less likely than the other two to use the phone, manage patients with chronic care needs or offer preventive medicine. Dermatologists topped the list of those using video visits, at 87.3 percent, following by urologists at 87.2 percent.
Among other specialists, endocrinologists and diabetes care physicians reported the highest use of telehealth to diagnose or treat patients (almost 72 percent), provide care management (92.1 percent) and provide preventive care (52.6 percent). And while 88.5 percent of hematologists and oncologists used video visits, only 68 percent used the phone. Finally, more than half of the gastroenterologists, nephrologists and neurologists in the survey said they used telehealth to provide acute care.
“Research conducted over the past year illustrated telehealth’s role in allowing patients to retain access to care during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report noted. “In turn, the use of telehealth and the expanded rules around coverage and payment for it allowed physician practices to keep their revenue streams positive rather than at or near zero and to remain open to serve their patients.”
While these percentages are all high, they reflect telehealth use at the height of the pandemic. More recent studies have placed telehealth use at around 20 percent as patients shift back to in-person care and providers look to create a hybrid strategy that balances in-person and virtual care.
It also speaks to the many federal and state emergency actions enacted during the pandemic to expand telehealth access and coverage, giving providers more incentive to use connected health. Most of those measures have ended or will end with the public health emergency, putting pressure on both states and Congress to establish a long-term telehealth policy that will keep the momentum going.