- From 2004 to 2014, rural telemedicine visits by mentally ill Medicare beneficiaries rose by 45 percent each year, according to research from Harvard Medical School and RAND Corporation.
The number of telemedicine visits increased from 2,365 in 2004 to 87,120 in 2014 as more patients took advantage of remote care options.
“Our results highlight the growing importance of telemedicine in the treatment of mental health disorders in rural settings where access to mental health care is often problematic,” said study lead investigator Ateev Mehrotra, associate professor in the Department of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School.
An average of 5 out of 100 rural beneficiaries with a mental health condition had a telemedicine visit during the study period. The number was higher for patients with serious mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, averaging 12 out of 100 beneficiaries in this subgroup.
This latter group made up 3 percent of rural Medicare beneficiaries, but accounted for more than a third of these telemedicine visits.
Some states had substantially higher visits than others, the team pointed out. In 2014, four states did not have any telemedicine visits throughout the entire year.
Conversely, nine states experienced 25 telemedicine visits per 100 patients with serious mental illnesses.
Differences in the legal landscape for telemedicine, as well as provider access issues, likely played a significant part in the disparities between states.
As telemedicine adoption rises, the next step in improving telemedicine delivery will involve objectively measuring its effects and patient outcomes, the researchers asserted.
"This work provides us with crucial information as we move forward to understand whether the rapid rise in mental telehealth actually translates into better patient outcomes,” said co-investigator Sherri Rose, associate professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School.