Telehealth Only Effective For Some Conditions


New research out of the University of Texas added to the growing body of evidence that indicates telehealth’s promise of lower costs and utilization isn’t as straightforward as it appears – especially for certain types of diseases. 

Researchers looked at patient visits across all hospital-based outpatient clinics in Maryland from 2012 to 2021, finding that virtual visits reduced the overall number of 30-day follow-ups by 13.6%, bringing down costs by $239 per patient.

Patients with behavioral health, skin, metabolic, and musculoskeletal disorders saw an even greater 19% reduction in follow-ups (an equivalent cost reduction of $179), suggesting that virtual care serves as a true substitute to office visits.

  • Telehealth was also associated with a significant reduction in ER and specialist visits among patients in this category.
  • The common thread between those conditions is what the researchers coined as “high virtualization potential,” or the ability for physicians to effectively measure symptoms over telehealth.

The flip side of that coin is that conditions with “low virtualization potential” saw nearly zero benefit from virtual care in terms of lowering costs, follow-ups, or future ER visits.

  • These included circulatory, respiratory, and infectious diseases, where symptoms are difficult to observe over video and harder for patients to communicate.

These findings double down on the results from Epic Research’s study earlier this month, which found that 16 of the 24 specialties analyzed had fewer follow-ups after an initial telehealth visit.

  • That study saw nearly identical overlap with behavioral health and MSK, which both saw a 20%+ reduction in follow-ups after telehealth. Podiatry, OBGYN, and ophthalmology were the greatest exceptions, in line with the “low virtualization potential” theme.

The Takeaway

The difference in telehealth’s effectiveness between conditions caused the study authors to reach the conclusion that virtual care should be promoted in clinical areas where it is most beneficial, but it seems like there might be a bigger takeaway for our audience: There’s a huge need for innovative remote examination solutions, and circulatory, respiratory, and infectious diseases are a great place to start.

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