A recent study from Epic Research shows that telehealth is proving to be an efficient use of resources and an effective tool to expand access to healthcare – indicating that virtual visits can be a successful alternative to in-person care.

The research examined more than 35 million telehealth visits conducted between 2020 and 2022 to determine the overall rates of telehealth visits by specialty, and to identify how often those visits required an in-person follow-up.

“Healthcare resources can be scarce, especially for rural communities, and information on the effectiveness of different methods for delivering care is important to guide decisions about how to allocate resources most effectively,” the report says.

“Previous studies have suggested that telehealth might be a less efficient method of care than in-person visits for acute conditions,” Epic Research continued. “We sought to determine which specialties were able to fulfill patient needs using telehealth and which required in-person follow-up visits more often.”

In nearly every specialty studied, most patients who had a telehealth visit did not require an in-person follow-up appointment in the next 90 days.

The study found that high follow-up rates were present only in specialties that unavoidably require regular visits with an in-person component for hands-on care, such as obstetrics and surgery. For specialties that required follow-up, the additional visits were likely related to needing “additional care, not duplicative care.”

Mental health and psychiatry had the largest volumes of telehealth utilization and some of the lowest rates of needing in-person follow-up: only 15 percent of the time did a patient need an in-person follow-up in the next three months.

The report suggests that telehealth could completely replace in-person consultations in certain areas over time. For example, genetics and nutrition were the specialties that made the most efficient use of telehealth. Their rates of needing in-person follow-up care in the three months after the telehealth visit were four percent and 10 percent, respectively.

“These findings suggest that, for many specialties, telehealth visits are typically an efficient use of resources and are unlikely to require in-person follow-up care. If telehealth is not duplicative of in-person visits for those specialties, it can be an effective tool to help expand access to care,” the report says.

Epic Research made two recommendations based on its findings:

  • Healthcare providers should continue to educate policymakers and administrators on the function telehealth plays as an alternative, rather than duplicative, encounter; and
  • Healthcare payers should extend telehealth visit coverage beyond the current waiver to support this method of care delivery and increased healthcare access.