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Patients prefer telehealth for common illnesses, study shows

Telemedicine has, at long last, become very popular. But lingering concerns remain on its effectiveness for certain diagnoses and treatments.

Software Advice’s 2022 State of Telemedicine Survey finds that while a majority of people prefer virtual appointments for common illnesses, more than half of patients still are concerned about the quality of care they’re receiving.

Software Advice, a Gartner company, polled more than 1,000 patients on telemedicine usage after the worst of the pandemic – whether they intend to keep using it and improvements that can be made.

We interviewed Lisa Hedges, associate principal analyst at Software Advice, to discuss the findings of the study and talk about the future of telemedicine.

Q. What is the overarching message healthcare CIOs and other health IT leaders should take from your study?

A. That failure to invest in telemedicine is downright foolish at this point. It’s been around for a long time, and fully took off during the pandemic. It isn’t going anywhere now that so many patients have experienced the convenience it offers.

This also means if you are one of the healthcare organizations that adopted telehealth during the pandemic and plan to eliminate those tools in the near future, you’re making a mistake.

The bottom line here is that telemedicine is a valuable tool for patients, and providers who offer remote care services for certain conditions and symptoms are going to have the edge over providers who don’t.

Q. About 86% of patients rate their telemedicine experience as positive; 91% are more likely to choose a provider that offers telemedicine. Why do you think this is, and what does it mean for healthcare provider organizations?

A. Convenience and ease of use are top reasons patients like telemedicine, and that certainly makes sense when you consider the time it saves. Patients don’t have to drive to a physical office, find parking, spend time in a waiting room (where they may be exposed to other contagions), and then drive back home once the appointment is over.

All of that is hassle enough even without considering the fact that most people going to see doctors don’t feel great, so their baseline before doing any of that is discomfort.

What this means for providers is they’re looking at a great opportunity. We’re all well aware of the current shortage of qualified healthcare workers, and we know that the working conditions for healthcare staff have been particularly brutal during the pandemic.

With so many employees quitting, it’s left a lot of extra work behind for those who have stayed on, which leads to more burnout and even more turnover. If practices can find a way to alleviate that burden, though, they’re going to make life better for their employees.

Telemedicine can do this by shortening the average exam time, nearly eliminating patient wait times, reducing the average number of no-shows, and saving money by cutting down on operational costs. All of these things can directly or indirectly impact the quality of life for healthcare workers and for patients.

Q. Only 49% prefer telemedicine visits for mental health treatment, despite it being one of the more remote-ready specialties. What does this finding say for the future of telepsychiatry?

A. This is a great question that a lot of people are puzzling over. Mental healthcare does seem to be an ideal match for telemedicine, specifically the use of video conferencing to conduct therapy sessions. So, I was a little surprised that more patients in our survey didn’t indicate a preference for telemedicine.

But there are a couple of things to consider here.

First, we didn’t collect data on patient history, so not every participant in our survey has experience seeking mental health treatment. That could be a factor in this dataset.

Second, 19% indicated no preference between telehealth and in-person appointments for mental health treatment when we asked this question, which means only 32% prefer in-person mental health appointments. So, it’s still the majority of patients saying telehealth is their favorite option for mental healthcare.

As far as what this means for the future of teletherapy, I don’t think it’s any huge concern. It could simply be that some patients are still warming up to the idea of having intimate conversations with a therapist through a computer screen. It could be an age thing. It could be something else.

Regardless, I suspect that if we were to run this survey annually for the next few years, that 49% would increase every time.

Q. One-third of patients worry that an in-person exam, lab work or other testing is critical to properly diagnose and treat patients. How can telemedicine jump this hurdle?

A. I’m not convinced telemedicine needs to jump this hurdle to prove itself valuable. Sure, there are incredible advancements being made in remote patient monitoring tools and other wearable devices that can help diagnose patients from a distance, but I think it’s equally worth noting that telemedicine is a tool to be used in the right circumstances – it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to medicine.

Yes, for a lot of medical conditions, doctors actually have to see the patient to perform physical tests. Those situations aren’t ideal for telemedicine, and we shouldn’t be thinking of them as hurdles – or even failures.

If, instead, we reframe our thinking so that we recognize the situations that are ideal for telemedicine appointments – those that don’t require physical tests for diagnosis, such as mental healthcare or common ailments like upper respiratory infection – we can see that telemedicine is a deeply valuable tool as it stands.

So, to answer your question, the real hurdle for telemedicine here is teaching patients when it is best used instead of needing to find ways to provide lab work or physical exams remotely. In essence: It’s a messaging problem instead of a technology problem.

The good news is patients seem to be recognizing this on their own. If you look at patient preferences for in-person appointments versus telemedicine appointments broken down by symptom in our report, you see that patients intuitively understand which symptoms are best treated remotely and which are more likely to need physical exams.

Twitter: @SiwickiHealthITEmail the writer: bsiwicki@himss.orgHealthcare IT News is a HIMSS Media publication.

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