Telehealth boosts quality metrics while nudging up spending

Telehealth utilization has led to enhancements in certain healthcare utilization and quality metrics, but it has also been associated with a 1.6% increase in healthcare spending, Health Affairs research confirmed April 17. 

In this study, researchers assessed telehealth's effects on healthcare utilization, quality and spending. To do so, they compared data from traditional Medicare patients who received care from health systems utilizing higher levels of telehealth services during the COVID-19 pandemic with data from patients in health systems that predominantly offered in-person services.

Researchers found that in 2020, patients receiving care at health systems with the highest use of telemedicine had an average of 2.5 telemedicine visits per person, making up 26.8% of their total visits. In contrast, those in health systems with the lowest telemedicine use had only 0.7 telemedicine visits per person, accounting for 9.5% of their visits.

Additionally, from 2021 to 2022, patients in the highest telemedicine use quartile experienced some changes compared to those in the lowest quartile. For example, they saw an average increase of 0.21 total outpatient visits (combining telemedicine and in-person) per patient per year, marking a 2.2% relative increase. These had a reduction of 14.4 non-COVID-19 emergency department visits per 1,000 patients per year, a relative decrease of 2.7%. However, there was a $248 rise in per patient spending per year, reflecting a 1.6% relative increase, according to the study. Patients in high telemedicine use health systems had better adherence to taking statins and metformin, but no difference was observed in hospitalizations or preventive care. 

Researchers said more study of telemedicine's effect on spending and quality is needed, but the modest cost increases may not be enough to justify a return to pre-COVID-19 telehealth funding restrictions in Medicare in light of the increases in quality and continued popularity of telehealth. 

 

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