Tragically, more than one million Americans have died from COVID-19 since the pandemic began, and that number is probably understated. We’ve surpassed the 675,000 Americans who perished in 1918 from the Great Influenza pandemic. We recognize the population increases from over a century ago, but this is still a staggering number of people to die from this virus.
One positive takeaway has been the use of telehealth services, especially for older Americans. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) conduct a review of Medicare fee-for-service and Medicare Advantage telehealth claims comparing March 2019 through February 2020 to the same time period of March 2020 through February 2021.
The report, released in March, revealed some very positive findings. More than 28 million Medicare beneficiaries used telehealth during the first year of the pandemic. This represented more than two in five of these beneficiaries. They also used 88 times more telehealth services during the first year of the pandemic than the prior year. Telehealth usage remained high through early 2021, with most beneficiaries using the service as a substitute for office visits.
Many urban beneficiaries used telehealth. This represented a substantial shift as, prior to the pandemic, most beneficiaries could only use telehealth from rural medical locations. The most frequent uses included office visits, behavioral health services, nursing home visits, and home visits. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) also expanded the use of audio-only telehealth visits, especially in areas with limited broadband access.
Certainly, some medical procedures must be performed in person. But this OIG study clearly documents key areas where telehealth could benefit both patients and Medicare beneficiaries. Detailing the use of telehealth during the first year of the pandemic sheds light on how Medicare beneficiaries accessed healthcare when travel and other obstacles prevented them from communicating with providers. We know some patients died indirectly from the pandemic because they were fearful of coming to a hospital, and many refused to call 9-1-1 when experiencing severe medical conditions.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. As we examine the social drivers of health, telehealth can be a part of the solution when patients are unable to seek medical care due to transportation and economic constraints. Future virtual healthcare success stories can be achieved, similar to those outlined in the OIG report.
This information can also help CMS, Congress and our Texas state legislature make decisions on how telehealth can best be used when delivering healthcare in the future.
Steve Love is the CEO and President of the DFW Hospital Council, which represents, advocates for, and coordinates efforts among more than 90 hospital members in the region.