The thought of visiting with a doctor in a video conference seemed unthinkable years ago. Yet today, telemedicine is experiencing meteoric growth amid the global coronavirus pandemic. It’s a way for physicians to deliver health care in a time when Americans nationwide are being encouraged to remain socially distant to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Telemedicine had been gradually growing in popularity well before the coronavirus outbreak. Nearly all large employers are now offering virtual doctor visits as part of their employee health coverage, up from only 7 percent in 2012, according to the Business Group on Health. About half of all U.S. hospitals provide access to some form of telemedicine. COVID-19 aside, here’s what’s behind the rise of telemedicine:
Convenience: We live in a connected world. People often struggle with fitting a doctor’s visit into busy schedules. One survey showed that 80 percent of Americans prefer telemedicine to a traditional in-office encounter with a physician in many situations, citing that they can get an appointment via virtual visit in a more timely manner than a traditional office visit and they can learn about treatment options in minutes.
With a virtual visit, people don’t have to leave work or home, and during the flu season (or a global pandemic) they don’t have to be around other potentially sick people. Many doctors like telemedicine because it can expand their patient reach and offer an easy way to handle treatment or care discussions. Not all visits are ideal for telemedicine, of course, but many are.
Reduced costs. The national median cost for a video-based virtual visit is $50, compared to $85 for a non-emergency/routine visit at a doctor’s office, $130 for an urgent care facility visit and $740 for an emergency room visit, according to UnitedHealthcare. Telemedicine is often a more affordable option for patients than traditional healthcare. Insurance companies like it because it can cut down on unnecessary ER visits and transportation.
Expanded behavioral health services. Nearly three-quarters of large employers offer virtual behavioral health visits; 6 percent are planning to offer them this year, and 10 percent are planning to offer them in 2021. Many people living in small communities struggle to find behavioral health services, and telemedicine can help make a provider available to them.
All generations can benefit. Millennials are about 20 percent more likely to use telemedicine than other age groups. Yet surveys show all age groups, including those in their 60s, 70s 80s and beyond, are open to telemedicine. Seniors, once they have adapted to the technology involved, enjoy the convenience, studies show.