Is Telehealth Helping Cut Down on Office Visits? Study Says No

For many patients, one of the main selling points of telehealth might be its potential to help them cut down on office visits to health care providers—to allow them to access care from the comfort of home, rather than having to spend the time on an in-office encounter. But according to a new multi-year study from researchers at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, telehealth has in reality often led to increased in-office visits. What’s more, as Healthcare IT News first reported, the additional time spent on e-visits prevented many of the providers surveyed from taking on new patients.

Per the Wisconsin and Penn researchers, who examined data from almost 100,000 patients in a large health system collected between 2008 and 2013, the use of e-visits typically led to in-office visits shortly afterward. In other words, as lead researcher Hessam Bavafa explained in a statement, the virtual encounters often tended to inspire patients to follow up with health care providers in person. “Patients may overreact to minor symptoms or not be clear enough in describing their situation and that leads to doctors feeling obligated to schedule an office visit,” he noted. Further, the study’s findings didn’t show that the use of virtual visits led to better health outcomes, as the researchers identified “no observable improvement in patient health between those utilizing e-visits and those who did not.” But that was only true for providers who were already “at capacity.” The researchers also noted that telehealth could help to alleviate physician shortages. In addition, Bavafa emphasized that he and his fellow researchers stand ready to do their part in improving telehealth. “By taking a closer look at how both patients and providers are responding to this new model of service delivery, we can try to make this channel a more effective tool for improving the health care system,” he commented.

The study’s findings echo those of a two-year RAND study of state employees, the results of which were published earlier this year, that concluded that, while virtual visits themselves were less expensive than in-office visits, they often generated additional costs for payers, and many patients taking advantage of the service did so on numerous occasions due to the convenience, leading to higher costs over time. However, as we reported at the time, the RAND study’s results weren’t widely perceived as being negative for telehealth. The researchers noted, for example, that the lower cost of individual telehealth visits as compared with in-office visits was a positive. Further, other studies have pointed to significant cost savings from telehealth, including research from the American Hospital Association and the consulting firm Towers Watson. As with many things telehealth-related, time and research are needed to tell us more.

Click here to read the Healthcare IT News article on the Wisconsin/Penn study.

Click here to read the Wisconsin/Penn telehealth study results.

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