Telemedicine: Now There’s No Excuse To Avoid Your Doctor

When you think of who is most likely to use telemedicine, what’s the image you get? Grandpa or Grandma, with their many physical maladies and multiple chronic-disease appointments? That’s not right. It’s adults ages 25-44.

Although telemedicine has been around for close to 20 years, we ignored it…until the pandemic hit. Patient indifference combined with physician resistance stymied the medium for years. The federal government reimbursed virtual medical appointments at a lower rate and insurance companies balked at paying for the services.

According to Statista, only 7 million patients used telemedicine in 2018, out of the 240 million adults and 95 million children living in the U.S. Now, 23% of American adults (55 million people) have used telemedicine, according to Morning Consult.

As COVID-19 swept through the U.S., those online medical appointments started looking better. No one wanted to catch a disease in a doctor’s office or hospital emergency department, and doctors worried patients would not show up to their appointments. Then Congress, providers and insurers began to sing the praises of telemedicine. Medicare began covering appointments at a higher rate, doctors told people it was online or nothing and insurance began to foot some of the bill.

So, who is using telemedicine most? Aging Americans seem like the logical choice, since they are at a higher risk of getting the coronavirus and need more medical care in general. But those ages 65 and up are the least likely to use telemedicine; only 20% have reported using it. Yet the number of Medicare beneficiaries who used telemedicine went up a whopping 11,700% from March 7 to April 18, to 1.3 million.

By age, the largest group (28%) of telemedicine users are those ages 35-44. The number of users was linked with increases in education level and income. Only 21% of people without a college degree reported consulting with a doctor online, compared with 33% of those with postgraduate degrees.  Likewise, among those who earned less than $50,000 per year, 20% used telemedicine, compared with 39% of those who earned over $100,000 per year.  And the self-employed used telemedicine more (29%) than the unemployed (16%). Around 22% of retirees used online medical services.

Why? Comfort with and access to technology probably play a role. And educated, high-income professionals are likely to think they are too busy to stop their workday to head to a doctor’s office, especially if they are trying to corral children at home. While this group isn’t the most likely to get severe COVID-19, they are likely to find a long wait in at the doctor’s office insufferable.

So, is this trend good? No doubt it will save people time, although whether consult prices will stay low is another matter. A televisit is better than no doctor’s visit, so if it can get reluctant patients in to “see” the doc, all’s the better. But for some things, it just won’t work. Patient-doctor bonding may be gone forever. Already-stressed doctors may be less likely to listen to patients they can’t see (and touch) close up.

Time will tell how the telemedicine trend will shake out.

Disclaimer: This article does not provide medical advice. Do not take action based solely on this article and always consult with an appropriate healthcare professional. This article is purely for informational purposes.

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