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June 04, 2020

Americans turning to telehealth services in droves amid COVID-19 crisis

Telehealth claims soaring in the Northeast, FAIR Health finds

Health Insurance TeleHealth
FAIR Health Telehealth Tracker William Iven/Pixabay

The telehealth industry has been transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic as people avoid in-person doctor visits due to fear of contracting the coronavirus.

Americans are heavily relying on telehealth services to avoid going into the doctor's office during the COVID-19 health crisis, according to insurance claims data analyzed by FAIR Health.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the Northeast, which has been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus. 

Telehealth claims have increased by 15,503% in the Northeast, jumping from a mere 0.07% of medical claims in March 2019 to 11.07% in March 2020, when states began implementing stay-at-home orders.

FAIR Health tracks the use of telehealth services through its Monthly Telehealth Regional Tracker by accessing a repository containing 31 billion private claim records. It does not include Medicare or Medicaid data. 

Increasing access to telehealth has been a priority on the federal and state level during the pandemic. Nationally, telehealth claims increased by 4,347%, jumping from 0.17% of medical claims in March 2019 to 7.52% in March 2020. 

The percentage increases could be partly the result of fewer elective procedures being performed – not just an increase in telehealth visits. 

Still, comparing telehealth claims between February and March perhaps offers a clear picture of the impact COVID-19 has had on telehealth. 

There were very few confirmed COVID-19 cases in February. Though telehealth claims had risen in comparison to the prior year, they were nowhere close to the heights they reached in March, when coronavirus cases began to surge. 

The tracker also identified notable changes in the types of diagnoses being made during telehealth visits. 

Acute respiratory diagnoses fell when comparing March 2020 to March 2019. That drop-off may have resulted from people with respiratory symptoms choosing to see their doctors in person due to the pandemic, FAIR President Robin Gelburd suggested.

Additionally, high blood pressure ranked among the top five telehealth diagnoses in March 2020, but had not done so in February 2020 or March 2019. That could be an indication of the high levels of stress caused by the crisis, Gelburd said. 

FAIR Health, a nonprofit aimed at bringing transparency to health care costs and health insurance information, offers its Monthly Telehealth Regional Tracker as a free service. 

The tracker includes an interactive map showing telehealth use in the four U.S. Census regions. It includes data on claims volume, procedure codes and diagnoses. 

"In this period of change, FAIR Health's Monthly Telehealth Regional Tracker opens a timely window on how telehealth is being transformed," Gelburd said in a statement. "It is one of several ways we are seeking to make our data useful to health care stakeholders as the COVID-19 crisis continues."

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