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Consumers Like Telehealth, But Still Prefer Face-to-Face Healthcare

Recent surveys have found that consumers want their doctors to adopt telehealth, but they see the value in convenience rather than clinical outcomes. And they still prefer in-person care to virtual care.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- Consumers are eager to have their doctors use telehealth – but many haven’t tried the technology themselves, and they’re not convinced it’s as good as an in-person exam.

Those somewhat contradictory points, made in a survey conducted late last year by Software Advice, offer more proof that the idea of telehealth may be great, but the execution of the concept has been lacking. And it once again underscores the need for healthcare providers and payers to educate their patients and members on the value of virtual care.

“People are interested in replacing in-person visits with video conferences - especially considering its convenience,” the report, written by content analyst Lisa hedges, points out. “But the vast majority of respondents don’t know much about this service or their insurance options.”

“Once this hurdle is overcome, though, physicians absolutely stand to benefit from making telemedicine available to their patients,” Hedges concludes. “And software vendors are facing the same opportunity by spreading the word about their systems. In other words, the future is bright for telehealth and those who offer it.”

That’s the promise. Now for the barriers.

READ MORE: Picking The Right Telehealth Platform For a Small or Solo Practice

According to the survey of almost 400 consumers, a healthy 77 percent said they’d be more likely to choose a doctor who offers telehealth than to choose one who isn’t using the technology. Yet 83 percent said they’ve never used telehealth, and only 8 percent have used virtual care within the past half-year.

Their reasons for wanting virtual visits, meanwhile, are convenience-based: 26 percent like the option of skipping trips to and from the doctor’s office, while 25 percent want to access healthcare in the comfort of their home, 20 percent want to access that care quickly and 16 percent like the short wait times.

Consumers are less convinced that the care is equal to or better via telehealth than in a visit to the doctor’s office. Only 11 percent cited quality of care as the determining factor in choosing a doctor who uses telehealth.

That concern is evident when consumers are asked about the drawbacks to telehealth. Some 43 percent said they’d miss out on the physical exam, while 27 percent cited the lack of in-person interaction and 13 percent worried about quality of care. (In contrast, only 9 percent cited concerns with using technology and only 6 percent were concerned about chatting with a doctor via video – indications that consumers aren’t worried about how to use telehealth).

And despite the national trend of hospitals and health systems launching consumer-facing telehealth programs for non-acute, one-off health concerns, those surveyed by Software Advice still prefer the personal touch of an office visit to the virtual visit.

READ MORE: Leveraging Primary Care Telehealth for Convenience and Quality

When asked their preference by symptoms, more than 90 percent of those surveyed want to be seen in person for treatment of a toothache or blurred vision, while more than 78 percent prefer in-person care for cuts, muscle aches and injuries, joint pain and rashes or skin disorders.

Of the rest, 71 percent prefer in-person care for upper respiratory issues, 63 percent want to be seen by a doctor for stomach pain or nausea, 63 percent prefer in-person care for treatment of a fever and 55 percent would prefer that a doctor treat them in person for a headache.

“This suggests that, while patients are definitely open to exploring telemedicine services, many consider in-person exams to be more beneficial,” Hedges wrote.

So consumers want to try out telehealth, but they haven’t just yet. That discrepancy may be linked to a lack of information.

According to the survey, 72 percent don’t know if their insurance covers telehealth (16 percent say it is covered, and the other 12 percent say it isn’t).

READ MORE: The Secret to Sustainability in Direct-to-Consumer Telehealth

“Only a combined total of 28 percent of patients polled were well-versed enough in their health insurance coverage to say whether or not telemedicine was included in their plans,” Hedges pointed out. “This lack of awareness speaks volumes about the limited information being circulated by insurance providers and employers.”

This isn’t the first survey to connect the dots between consumer telehealth use and awareness. Also last year, telehealth provider Avizia released two separate surveys – one of consumers and one of providers – which indicate each has different ideas of the value of the technology.

On the consumer side, only 18 percent of those surveyed said they had used the technology. Of those not using telehealth, just 10 percent said they’d never heard of it, while 58 percent said they haven’t had the opportunity to use it.

Two-thirds of the consumers surveyed, meanwhile, said they didn’t know if telehealth was covered by their insurance, and only 20 percent could positively say that such services were covered.

“This points to a significant patient disconnect that either insurers or providers — possibly both — need to ponder,” the report pointed out. “Providers that are keen to raise patient awareness and increase participation in telehealth may wish to consider some sort of joint patient education outreach with their leading managed-care partners.”

Like the Software Advice survey, the Avizia survey also found that consumers don’t know what to expect from telehealth. Of those not using telehealth, almost half said they would find a video visit less comfortable than an in-person visit, while 74 percent said they’d prefer an in-person psychiatry session to a telepsychiatry session.

“There appears to be a gap between what patients think their experience would be, and what it turns out to be once they try it,” the report concluded. “According to hospital system leaders we interviewed, patients actually like talking to a psychiatrist via videoconferencing once they give it a chance.”


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