Virtual health care visits skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, a new study finds.
Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University, both in the Boston area, looked at the use of telehealth before and during the pandemic compared to in-person appointments.
In 2019, the year before the pandemic, virtual visits accounted for just 0.3 percent of health care usage.
That figure jumped nearly 100-fold amid the Covid crisis, accounting for 29.6 percent of visits from June 2020 to April 2021.
Conversely, in-person visits made up 92 percent of health care appointments before the pandemic, which declined to 63 percent during the pandemic.
Researchers believe that the rise of virtual care has not added much to health care in America, but has instead just substituted existing systems.
Virtual health care made up a insignificant portion of health care before the pandemic. Once COVID-19 arrived its use grew, though, and it now accounts for around 30% of all health care
Researchers believe the virtual care will not add to the amount of care being delivered, but instead serve as a substitute to some in-person visits. Pictured: A Covid patient receives treatment at a Worcester, Massachusetts, hospital on December 4, 2020
‘Our results suggest that the transition to incorporate virtual care into our ambulatory care offerings was not associated with increased overall visit volumes,’ researchers wrote.
‘We believe this suggests that, to date, virtual care has been substitutive, rather than additive, within our system and provided a vital avenue for care delivery.’
While virtual care has always existed, telehealth became commonplace during the pandemic, opening a new dimension to the health care system.
Many have lauded virtual care as the future, as it makes quick doctor visits much easier and more accessible.
It also removed potential transportation barriers some may face in getting treatment.
Virtual care will always be lacking compared to in-person visits, though, and there are many basic functions that cannot be performed virtually.
Researchers, who published their findings on Wednesday in JAMA Network Open, gathered data from 12 hospitals in the Massachusetts General Hospital health care system from October 2019 to April 2021.
They compared data from the pre-pandemic period, October 2019 to February 2020, to the pandemic period from June 2020 to April 2021.
In total, there were 10.5 million visits among 1.5 million patients during the study period.
In the pre-pandemic period, there were 578,084 health care visits, with only 1,488 – or 0.3 percent – of visits being virtual.
Covid caused many to move their care into a virtual setting.
During the pandemic period, from June 2020 to April 2021, there were 590,613 health care visits – a two percent increase in total health care usage.
Of those visits, 174,579 – or 29.6 percent – were virtual.
There was a near equal decrease in use of on-site in-person health care visits,.
Prior to the pandemic, there 530,156 visits the pre-Covid period, making up 91.7 percent of appointments, which fell to 369,239 during the pandemic, or 62.7 percent of all appointments.
Researchers also found a 25 percent increase in overall behavioral health visits during the pandemic, with the exact same 0.3 percent to 29.6 percent jump in virtual care visits once the pandemic started.
Behavioral health care became especially important during the pandemic, with there being a reported spike in mental health issues across the country – especially among kids.
While virtual health does have its limitations, it has become a boon to behavioral and mental health care.