Experts often say that the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t start many new initiatives in health tech, but it greatly accelerated changes that were already underway. One key example: the telehealth industry has seen enormous growth since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Compared to 2019, traditional Medicare visits provided via telehealth increased 63-fold. The report on Medicare Beneficiaries’ Use of Telehealth in 2020 examines the trends in the use of telehealth under Medicare during the pandemic. 

Prior to COVID-19, residents in rural areas were the major beneficiaries of Medicare telehealth as the policies restricted coverage in urban areas. However, after the pandemic-driven removal of the broad geographic restrictions on Medicare telehealth policies, urban Medicare beneficiaries used telehealth services more than rural populations. Limitations on Internet services in remote areas might have played a part in this difference.

Racial and ethnic disparities in the use of telehealth were seen in both rural and urban areas. Hispanic and American Indian/Alaska Natives reported higher use of telehealth as compared to Whites, whereas Blacks reported lower use of telehealth. 

The report also mentions that the net healthcare use declined in 2020 relative to 2019. There were 179 million fewer health visits, despite the greater use of telehealth. Behavioral healthcare visits were recorded among the top reasons for using telehealth. 

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) has suggested the extension of temporary telehealth flexibilities even after the pandemic. If these facilities are extended, gaining more insight on the change in utilization of overall healthcare would be possible. More research is required to analyze the impact of telehealth on the health status of the population and the overall costs.

The major takeaway from the report was that Medicare beneficiaries were able to access healthcare through telehealth when in-person visits were difficult. However, telehealth could not compensate for all in-person visits for specialist care.