Patients need education, telehealth experience to boost its use

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Only about 10 percent of Americans have used telehealth services, and many of those who haven’t say they have limited access to it or are unaware of telehealth options.

Nearly 40 percent of respondents to a survey by market research firm J.D. Power say their health system does not offer the service or their health insurer won’t cover it.

Ironically, awareness in telehealth is lowest in rural areas despite long being seen as a natural fit to increase patient access to healthcare. Only 9 percent of rural residents have used the service, as Internet connectivity can still be limited in rural regions and providers need to work with their telecommunications firms to get better bandwidth.

There are also barriers to telehealth use in urban areas as half of provider respondents believe the quality of care from a telemedicine session is lower than going to a physician office visit.

"Telehealth technology is maturing, but the relatively low levels of engagement we’re seeing implies that major initiatives in both patient education and consumer experience are the next steps in making telehealth a staple for healthcare delivery,” says Greg Truex, managing director of health intelligence at J.D. Power. “For patients that stand to gain the most from healthcare, telehealth needs to be promoted as a way to reduce costs to both the healthcare system and consumers, all while maintaining a high level of care.”

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When it comes to consumers’ understanding of telehealth costs they seem to be all over the map, according to preliminary findings in a J.D. Power study that will be finalized later this year. Some 13 percent of respondents perceive telemedicine to be more expensive than an office visit; 48 percent believe telehealth is less expensive; and 40 percent think the cost is about the same.

For now, the constituency that stands to gain the most from telehealth are persons older than 65 that need more services and spend the most on healthcare, Truex notes. “Telehealth needs to be promoted as a way to enhance continuity of care while reducing costs to both the healthcare system and consumers.”

The challenge facing providers thinking about telehealth adoption is demonstrating to their patients that telehealth provides as good, if not better care, and a more accessible channel of care than the emergency department, urgent care and other retail clinics, according to the draft J.D. Power report.

However, Truex and colleagues now are finding that some providers are telling their patients to not go to urgent care, but to use telehealth as it is another channel with quality care at a lower price. “It’s hard enough to get a doctor to listen to you when you are in the office and sitting in front of them,” he notes.

As a side note, Truex says, researchers have found that telehealth adoption is particularly slow in the Northeast United States and the reasons are not yet clear.

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