Preference for telehealth over in-person visits starting to fade: survey

Two possible explanations for declining contentment with live video calls as a form of care delivery.

Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, patients’ initial satisfaction with some forms of telemedicine is starting to wane, a new survey finds.

The survey by Rock Health, a health care advisory, investment and research firm, is part of an ongoing study of consumers’ use of telemedicine and attitudes towards it. It found that in 2021 43% of respondents were satisfied with the care they received via live video calls—the most widely-used form of telemedicine this year--compared to prior in-person care interactions. In 2020 53% of 2020’s respondents said they were satisfied with live video calls as a form of care.

Satisfaction with health apps/websites and text messaging declined, although by lesser margins than live video calls. On the other hand, satisfaction with live phone calls and picture/video modalities rose, the latter from 41% to 54%. Satisfaction with email was unchanged.

The authors offer two possible explanations for declining contentment with live video calls as a form of care delivery. The first is that the sense of satisfaction patients felt for having any form of health care during much of 2020, when in-person visits weren’t possible, has faded in 2021. They note that a similar trend has occurred among physicians, 58% of whom view telehealth more positively now than before the pandemic, compared to 64% of those surveyed in 2020.

A second possibility lies in the changing nature of why people used telemedicine. In 2020 the largest category of users of live video calls among survey respondents—33%--were people with a medical emergency. Among that group, 77% reported higher levels of satisfaction with virtual interactions than with in-person care.

In 2021, however, the single biggest use for live video telemedicine (32% of survey respondents) was for minor illnesses, and only 37% of those users reported greater satisfaction compared to in-person care. In short, the authors say, “satisfaction with telemedicine as a convenient alternative may be lower than telemedicine as a necessary access point.”

The survey also found less telemedicine use among respondents identifying as white-only than other racial and ethnic groups. In 2021 70% of white-only respondents said they used telemedicine, compared to 87% of Hawaiian Native and/or Pacific Islander respondents, 79% among both Black and American Indian and/or Alaska native respondents, 78% of Asians and 73% of Hispanics.

The authors acknowledge that since the survey was conducted in English via computer, Black and Hispanic adults may be underrepresented since they are less likely than white adults to own a desktop or laptop computer or have home high-speed internet. Even so, they say, their findings are consistent with results of a 2020 Pew study showing that Black, Hispanic and other non-white adults were more likely to use telemedicine than were white adults.

The study, “Consumer adoption of telemedicine in 2021,” is available on the website of RockHealth.org