Physicians continue using telehealth, will use more in future

AMA calls for permanent access, for Medicare patients, connectivity for all.

Physicians are using telehealth and expect to use it even more in the future, according to a new survey by the American Medical Association (AMA).

Almost 85% of doctors indicated they are using telehealth to care for patients and nearly 70% report their organizations are motivated to continue using it in their practices, AMA said in a news release about the survey results.

AMA’s 2021 results came from 2,232 physicians across the country and followed similar studies in 2016, 2019 and 2020. The association noted use of telehealth “surged during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Physicians view telehealth as providing quality care to their patients, and policymakers and payers have come to the same conclusion. Patients will benefit immensely from this new era of improved access to care,” AMA President Gerald E. Harmon, MD, said in the news release. “This survey shows adoption of the technology is widespread as is the demand for continued access. It is critical that Congress takes action and makes permanent telehealth access for Medicare patients.”

The latest survey comes as Congress recently extended availability of telehealth for Medicare patients beyond the current COVID-19 public health emergency. Additional action by Congress will be needed to permanently provide access to Medicare telehealth services, AMA said.

Among physicians using telehealth, 93% conducted live, interactive video visits with patients and 69% conducted audio-only visits.

According to the survey, 95% of physicians reported patients were primarily located at their home virtual visits, a key component of making telehealth more accessible, according to AMA.

Before the pandemic, Medicare patients needed to be physically located in a rural area to access telehealth services from an “originating site,” essentially a health care facility. Urban and suburban were shut out from virtual care.

Insurance coverage and technology could be future barriers to telehealth.

Payers, both public and private, should continue to evaluate and improve policies, coverage, and payment rates for services provided via telehealth, AMA said in the news release.

“Under-resourced” patients and communities need access to broadband and Internet-connected devices. AMA “will advocate for patient populations and communities with limited access to telehealth service.”