Since the beginning of the pandemic, mental health conditions have remained the number one diagnosis seen in telehealth nationwide, recently reaching 61.2% of all virtual care claims.
From August to September 2021, mental health cases increased in the percentage of all telehealth claims nationally, according to the FAIR Health’s monthly regional telehealth tracker.
While most virtual physician interactions have returned to low rates, virtual behavioral health visits have continued to rise, said Tom Keso, senior partner at Chartis.
“There is no broader social perception that aligns with the challenges of people seeking mental health care,” Kiso said. “Historically, in a virtual environment, it’s both protected and private.”
In the case of mental health services, telehealth has helped residents overcome stigma, have easier access and receive more consistent care, said Krista Drupak, executive director of the Connected Care Alliance.
FAIR Health has used data from privately insured residents, including Medicare Advantage, to measure the evolution of telehealth each month since May 2020. The data also shows that nationwide telehealth use, as a percentage of all medical claims, It grew about 2% in August and September, after several months of refusing to use.
Use of telehealth overall rose to 4.4% of all medical claims in September, as COVID-19 variables and spikes began to keep patients away from in-person visits. Although default care appointments have increased in the Midwest and West, they have decreased in the Northeast and there has been no change in their use in the South.
Drupak said reductions in telehealth use aren’t inherently bad, with industry experts always predicting telehealth levels would drop as patients return to in-person visits. What matters is the ability to follow default options.
“Our expectations about how much health care people will use remain the same,” she said. “It’s just a combination of how they monitor their health care that is changing. And that’s a good thing.”
Kiesau said healthcare clients across the country are often either negative about telehealth, allowing doctors to dictate their own offerings, or they are investing and focusing on the virtual consumer experience.
“Some organizations are making more concerted efforts to drive digital access and digital capacity for patients, increasing their share of the percentage of virtual interactions,” he said.
In August, COVID-19 made up between 1.5% and 3.5% of claims in every region except the Northeast, and in September, the virus exited the top five diagnoses nationwide in telehealth.
The drop is likely due to the fact that more individuals have been vaccinated and may have less severe symptoms, Drupak said.
Nationally, developmental disorders rose from fourth to third place in the best telehealth diagnoses, while substance use disorders became part of the top five in September.
Among the top five telehealth procedure codes ranked by use, 30-minute psychotherapy visits, conducted with assessment and management, ranked fifth nationwide in September. This action offset talking to a doctor on the phone for five to ten minutes.
At this point in the pandemic, patients are still somewhat reluctant to return to office visits but have a high level of satisfaction with telehealth options, Kiesau said.
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Over time, he said, the industry will transform so that health care facilities that offer the greatest flexibility in their virtual and in-person services will pool more patients.
“Consumers ultimately determine how businesses are delivered and transformed, based on their demands for convenience and simplicity,” Kizo said.