A new study out this week revived an old argument about whether telehealth visits spur more downstream care utilization compared to in-person visits, potentially raising the total cost of care. Researchers evaluated three years of claims data from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan to compare patients treated for an acute upper respiratory infection via telemedicine versus an in-person visit, finding that patients who used telemedicine were almost twice as likely to have a related downstream visit (10.3 percent vs. 5.9 percent, respectively).
They concluded that these increased rates of follow-up likely negate any cost savings from replacing an in-person encounter with a less costly telemedicine visit.
Our take: so what? The study failed to address the question of whether a telemedicine visit was easier to access, or more timely than an in-person visit. Further, it evaluated data from 2016-2019, so the results should be caveated as pertaining to the “pre-COVID era”, before last year’s explosion in virtual care. Moreover, it’s unsurprising that patients who have a telemedicine visit may need more follow-up care (or that providers who deliver care virtually may be more aggressive about suggesting follow-up if symptoms change).
This focus on increased downstream care as a prima facie failure also ignores the fact that telemedicine services likely tap into pent-up, unmet demand for access to care. More access is a good thing for patients—and policymakers should consider that limiting reimbursement for virtual access to primary care (which accounts for less than 6 percent of total health spending) is unlikely to deliver the system-wide reduction in healthcare spending we need.