Jeff Rowe, Editor, Future Care

Jeff Rowe is the editor of Future Care and a veteran healthcare journalist and blogger who has reported extensively on initiatives to improve the healthcare system at the local, regional and national level.

Increased telehealth access keeps utilization costs high

March 10, 2017 AT 2:05 PM

The convenience of telehealth services is increasingly appealing to patients, but a new study published in Health Affairs suggests that very convenience, and the expanded use that comes with it, may limit the technology’s effectiveness as a cost-cutter.

According to an article at FierceHealthIT, the study “tracked three years of commercial claims data on acute respiratory infections and found that nearly nine in 10 telehealth visits represented new utilization, as opposed to substitutes for in-person encounters.”

As the report abstract sums it up, “increased convenience may tap into unmet demand for health care, and new utilization may increase overall health care spending.” According to the study’s authors, the cost of a telehealth visit represents about half the per-episode cost of an office visit, but a lot more of those visits represented new utilization, rather than substitutions for regular office visits.

“The savings from substitution were outweighed by the increase in spending for the new utilization, and per enrollee spending on acute respiratory infection treatment was higher among telehealth users compared to nonusers,” the authors write.

Given these findings, the authors suggested providers may consider raising patient costs to offset the cost of increased utilization, look at whether greater utilization benefits more populations than others  and look at how providers might limit the unnecessary use of telemedicine services.