Telehealth came to the forefront of the American consciousness with the onset of COVID-19, when virtual healthcare visits became commonplace. But that was then. How is telehealth faring more than two years since the coronavirus first hit our shores? That’s one of the questions Zocdoc, an appointment booking platform, set out to answer with its recent surveys of providers and users. Some may be surprised by the top-line takeaway: telehealth use has fallen considerably since the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Mental health, however, is an exception to this trend.
While telehealth remains an integral part of healthcare overall, the surveys show that it’s mainly a complement to in-person healthcare, not a substitute. Before the pandemic, less than 1% of care involved telehealth. That percentage surged as the coronavirus spread widely across the U.S.; according to Zocdoc data, 13% of all outpatient visits were done via telehealth between March 2020 and August 2020. With appointments booked specifically through Zocdoc, 33% of all appointments were telehealth visits in May 2020. By May 2022, that number had been cut nearly in half to 17%.
While this decline in telehealth was consistent across nearly all medical specialties, mental health is the one exception; its use increased. Zocdoc reports that in May 2020, 74% of bookings for mental healthcare were tele-visits. That rose to 81% in May 2021 and rose again to 87% in May 2022. Why is mental health an outlier? Users surveyed told Zocdoc they favored virtual visits for the convenience and the increased sense of intimacy that the comfort of their homes provides. Plus furry friends. One respondent said, “Having my pet there made me feel calmer, and I loved it.”
Location also plays a significant role in the dominance of telehealth for mental healthcare. One respondent said, “It is convenient, requiring less time off work, and [it is] less expensive because I don’t need to pay for transportation.” Another said, “I’m more likely to fit it in my schedule than if I need to travel for an appointment.” The Zocdoc findings also run contrary to the conventional wisdom that telehealth best serves those in more remote areas who would have to travel greater distances for in-person care. Just 9% of the respondents described where they live as rural, compared to 41% in suburban locations and 50% in urban locations.
How did the respondents feel about telehealth in general? There are notable discrepancies between the perceptions of patients and providers. Citing the relaxed informality of telehealth visits, 31% of the patients surveyed said building a relationship with a healthcare provider via telehealth was “easier” or “much easier” compared to in-person visits. Only 7% of providers, however, felt the same. Instead, 37% of providers surveyed said relationship building via telehealth was “more difficult” or “much more difficult.”