Office visits represented 48 percent of all telehealth services used in the first year of the pandemic, making it the service most accessed via telehealth, federal data shows.
Medicare beneficiaries most often used telehealth for office visits in 2020, receiving 54.5 million virtual office visits in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new federal report.
The report, released by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General, is based on an analysis of Medicare fee-for-service claims data and Medicare Advantage encounter data from March 1, 2020, to Feb. 28, 2021, and from March 1, 2019, to Feb. 29, 2020.
Overall, telehealth use soared after the COVID-19 pandemic hit. From March 2020 through February 2021, more than 28 million Medicare beneficiaries used a telehealth service, representing 43 percent of the 66 million beneficiaries enrolled in Medicare.
Before the pandemic, only 1 percent of beneficiaries used telehealth.
Further, Medicare beneficiaries used 114.4 million telehealth services from March 2020 to February 2021, which is 88 times the telehealth services this population used the year prior.
The use of telehealth services did decline throughout 2020, dropping from 17.6 million telehealth services in April to 7.8 million services in November. But usage still outstripped pre-pandemic levels, with beneficiaries using nearly twice the number of telehealth services in February 2021 as in March 2020.
Despite the rise in telehealth, Medicare beneficiaries used 20 percent fewer healthcare services overall during the first year of the pandemic than before.
Their use of telehealth was focused on office visits, virtual care services, behavioral health services, nursing home visits, and preventive services.
Beneficiaries received 54.5 million office visits via telehealth, representing 48 percent of all telehealth services used during the first year of the pandemic. They received 34 million virtual care services through telehealth, such as telephone-based evaluation and management and virtual check-ins, and 14.1 million behavioral health services, like individual therapy and substance use disorder treatment.
Nursing home visits were the next most common telehealth service, with 3.3 million of these services provided in 2020. Medicare patients also received 2.4 million preventive services virtually in the first year of the pandemic.
Researchers noted that beneficiaries’ use of telehealth for behavioral health services is significant.
Medicare patients chose to use telehealth for a larger share of their behavioral health services than others. Beneficiaries participated in a virtual visit for 43 percent of all behavioral health services they received during the first year of the pandemic. Meanwhile, they used telehealth for only 13 percent of all office visits during the same period.
“Beneficiaries’ use of telehealth during the pandemic also demonstrates the long-term potential of telehealth to increase access to healthcare for beneficiaries,” the OIG stated.
Telehealth usage among Medicare beneficiaries is likely to remain high relative to pre-pandemic levels. Congress included proposals to extend telehealth flexibilities for Medicare patients in its omnibus spending package earlier this month. The flexibilities have been extended until at least five months after the public health emergency officially expires.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services can use the findings from the above report as they consider permanent changes to telehealth coverage and regulations, the OIG stated.