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Research

Telehealth claims analysis: Is telehealth really here to stay?

Overview

The explosion of telehealth during 2020’s Covid-19 lockdown transformed health care delivery and provided us with long-awaited data points. But telehealth’s rapid growth left us with unanswered questions about the impact and durability of telehealth.

We investigated volumes before, during, and following the Covid-19 lockdown to help us answer these questions:

  • How will future telehealth volumes compare to pre-Covid norms?
  • Will a rise in telehealth utilization lead to an increase in overall utilization and total spending?
  • How does telehealth utilization differ across service lines? How will reimbursement impact future utilization?
  • How can future analyses help us answer outstanding questions?

Our main takeaway: Telehealth is here to stay as a meaningful proportion of physician visits—especially for service lines that lend themselves to virtual modalities, like psychiatry.

 

What we did

We investigated telehealth utilization in the three specialties with the highest virtual volumes in 2020: Evaluation and Management, Psychiatry, and Physical Therapy.

To evaluate the durability of telehealth volumes, we used data from a national, representative sample of Medicare Fee-for-service beneficiaries’ claims, spanning all sites of services and geographies. We analyzed all 271 CPT codes on Medicare’s list of telehealth-eligible services, capturing monthly trends from 2019 to mid-2021. By breaking out the data by service and sub-service lines, we saw a clear divergence in trends during the post-lockdown era.

 
Four insights about telehealth utilization
  • 1. Current telehealth volumes are not ‘disappointing’ relative to pre-Covid norms
  • 2. Early signs suggest that telehealth won’t increase costs
  • 3. If you billed for it, they would come
  • 4. Don’t waste your energy evaluating services that aren’t reimbursable
 

Parting thoughts

Telehealth is here to stay. Telehealth volumes are much higher than anything we experienced before Covid-19, while overall utilization has stayed stable at pre-pandemic levels. Stakeholders across the industry can benefit from the convenience and efficiency that telehealth offers without driving up costs.

However, the world is still stabilizing, as is our understanding of the long-term impacts that are still coming to bear. We encourage all health care organizations to continue tracking and measuring their data so we can continue to learn about the benefits and pitfalls of telehealth. Here are some questions that we’ll continue to monitor, and we encourage others to consider:

  • How will telehealth utilizations trends change as in-person care returns at greater volumes?
  • How will utilization patterns change based on the unique patient perspectives across various demographic groups (such as age or language abilities)?
  • How can telehealth start to close gaps (or unintentionally widen) in health care disparities?

Footnotes

1 Because our data comes from a national, representative sample of Medicare Fee-for-service beneficiaries’ claims, the absolute volumes shown in the charts will likely be smaller than health care leaders are used to seeing.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

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