We’ve been hearing a growing number of stories from patients about difficulties scheduling appointments for specialist consults.
A friend’s 8-year-old son experienced a new-onset seizure and was told that the earliest she could schedule a new patient appointment with a pediatric neurologist at the local children’s hospital was the end of November. Concerned about a five-month wait time after the scary episode, she asked what she should do in the meantime: “They told me if I want him to be seen sooner, bring him to the ED at the hospital if it happens again.”
A colleague shared his frustration after his PCP advised him to see a gastroenterologist. Calling six practices on the recommended referral list, the earliest appointment he could find was nine weeks out; the scheduler at one practice noted that with everyone now scheduling colonoscopies and other procedures postponed during the pandemic, they are busier than they’ve been in years. Recent conversations with medical group leaders confirm a specialist access crunch.
Patients who delayed care last year are reemerging, and ones who were seen by telemedicine now want to come in person. “We are booked solid in almost every specialty, with wait times double what they were before COVID,” one medical group president shared. The spike in demand is compounded by staffing challenges: “I pray every day that another one of our nurses doesn’t quit, because it will take us months to replace them.”
Doctors and hospitals are now seeing a rise in acuity—cancers diagnosed at a more advanced stage, chronic disease patients presenting with more severe complications—due to care delayed by the pandemic. If patients can’t schedule needed appointments and procedures, this spike in severity could be prolonged, or even made worse.
For medical groups who can find ways to open additional access, it’s also an opportunity to capture new business and engender greater patient loyalty.
- Telehealth claim lines as a percentage of all medical claims dropped 13% in April, marking the third straight month of declines, according to new data from nonprofit Fair Health.
- The dip was greater than the drop of 5.1% in March, but not as large as the decrease of almost 16% in February. However, overall utilization remains significantly higher than pre-COVID-19 levels.
- The decline appears to be driven by a rebound in in-person services, researchers said. Mental health conditions bucked the trend, however, as the percentage of telehealth claim lines associated with mental conditions — the No. 1 telehealth diagnosis — continued to rise nationally and in every U.S. region.
The coronavirus spurred an unprecedented increase in telehealth utilization early last year. But early data from 2021 suggests demand is slowing as vaccinations ramp up and COVID-19 cases decrease across the U.S.
Fair Health has used its database of over 33 billion private claims records to analyze the monthly evolution of telehealth since May last year. Telehealth usage peaked among the privately insured population last April, before easing through September and re-accelerating starting in October, as the coronavirus found a renewed foothold in the U.S.
In January, virtual care claims made up 7% of all medical claim lines, but that fell to 5.9% in February, 5.6% in March and just 4.9% in April, suggesting a steady deceleration in telehealth demand.
The deceleration in April was seen in all U.S. regions, but was particularly pronounced in the South, Fair Health said, which saw a 12.2% decrease in virtual care claims.
The trend doesn’t bode well for the ballooning virtual care sector, which has enjoyed historic levels of funding during COVID-19. Just halfway through the year, 2021 has already blown past 2020’s record for digital health funding, with a whopping $14.7 billion. This latest data suggests dampening utilization could throw cold water on the red-hot marketplace.
And policymakers are still mulling how many telehealth flexibilities should be allowed after the public health emergency expires, expected at the end of this year. Virtual care enjoys broad support on both sides of the aisle and the Biden administration’s top health policy regulators, including CMS administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, have said they support permanently adopting virtual care coverage waivers, but returned restrictions on telehealth access could also stymie use.
Fair Health also found that nationally, mental health conditions increased from 57% from all telehealth claims in March to 59% in April. That month, psychotherapeutic/psychiatric codes jumped nationally as a percentage of telehealth procedure codes, while evaluation and management codes dropped, suggesting a continued need for virtual access to mental health services, which can be some of the rarest and most expensive medical services to find in one’s own geographic area.
Also in April, acute respiratory diseases and infections increased as a percentage of claim lines nationally, and in the Midwest and South, while general signs and symptoms joined the top five telehealth diagnoses in the West. Both trends suggest a return to non-COVID-19 respiratory conditions, like colds and bronchitis, and more ‘normal’ conditions like stomach viruses, researchers said.