Telehealth: ‘It’s More Nuanced’

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Although there are certain specialties in medicine that seemed to benefit from this newer former of clinical visits, infectious disease and others did not.

Image Credit:Tima Miroshnichenko, Pexels

Image Credit:Tima Miroshnichenko, Pexels

Telehealth has been around for some years now and the pandemic may have accelerated the belief that this technological advancement could be hugely beneficial in the delivery of health care. However, a new study points to areas where it can be beneficial and others where no advantages were realized. Specifically, the study’s investigators point out that telehealth can save money and health care resources by enabling virtual evaluation and treatment, but only when it’s used for certain types of diseases and condition.

For example, telehealth did not significantly reduce costs or the number of future visits to emergency rooms or specialists for circulatory, respiratory, and infectious diseases. When patients were dealing with diseases of the heart or lung, or those involving infection, symptoms are more difficult for patients to communicate and for doctors to observe over video. These limitations resulted in no benefit from virtual care, acknowledged study author Indranil Bardhan, PhD, professor of information, risk and operations management, the University of Texas at Austin.

“The effectiveness of telehealth is really a function of the type of disease that it is used to treat,” Bardhan said.

The findings were published in Information Systems Research.

Based on a study of patient visits across all hospital-based outpatient clinics in Maryland from 2012 to 2021, they found virtual telehealth visits reduced the overall number of future outpatient visits within 30 days of a telehealth encounter by 14%, saving $239 in total outpatient costs per patient.

The specialties that realized the greatest benefits of telehealth were behavioral health, metabolic disorders, dermatology, and musculoskeletal disorders saw.

“Specifically, patients with mental health, skin, metabolic, and musculoskeletal diseases exhibit a significant reduction of 0.21 outpatient visits per quarter (an equivalent cost reduction of $179) when they are treated via telehealth, suggesting a substitution effect with respect to traditional clinic visits,” the investigators wrote.

It is important to note, medicine is not a one-size-fits-all deliverable that can be templated, especially when the complexity of patients’ presenting conditions may require an in-person visit. “People believed that telehealth would be the next big thing, the future of health care,” Bardhan said. “But our research shows that its impact is not as straightforward as people might think. It’s more nuanced.”

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