More older Americans have been seeing their doctors virtually since the pandemic began than ever before, a new poll finds.
During the first three months of the pandemic, one in four patients over 50 years of age used telehealth — way up from the 4% who did so in 2019.
Comfort levels with telemedicine have also risen, the researchers said. In 2019, most older people had at least one concern about telemedicine, but by mid-2020, the number of those with concerns dropped, especially among people who had a virtual visit between March and June.
But not everyone is comfortable with meeting their doctor online, according to the National Poll on Healthy Aging, published online by the University of Michigan.
Among those over 50, 17% still said they have never used any kind of video conferencing for any reason, including medical care.
That’s 11 percentage points lower than in the 2019 poll, but lack of experience or access may still be a barrier to getting care via telemedicine.
The 2019 and 2020 polls each involved a national sample of more than 2,000 U.S. adults aged 50 to 80.
“These findings have implications for the health providers who have ramped up telehealth offerings rapidly, and for the insurance companies and government agencies that have quickly changed their policies to cover virtual visits,” said researcher Lorraine Buis, a health information technology researcher at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor.
“Tracking change over time could inform future efforts, and highlights the need for much more research on concerns, barriers and optimal use of telehealth by older adults,” Buis added in a university news release.
The poll found that by June 2020, 30% of older adults had participated in a telehealth visit at some point, which might reflect changes in insurance coverage that began to take effect before the pandemic.
But the movement towards more telehealth might also have resulted from states mandating reductions in elective and non-emergency health care during the pandemic.
Almost 50% of survey participants said that, between March and June, they had a doctor’s office visit canceled or rescheduled because of the pandemic, and 30% said a virtual visit was their only option. But only 15% who had a telehealth visit said that fear of the virus made them ask for a virtual appointment.
Among those who had a telehealth visit during the spring, 91% said it was easy to connect with their doctor. One-third had their visits by a video connection from their phone, and another third from their tablet or computer, and 36% had an audio-only visit by phone.
The poll also found:
- 64% of the patients felt comfortable using telehealth, up from 53% in 2019.
- 62% of people had at least one telehealth visit offered, versus 14% in 2019.
- 72% were interested in a telehealth visit, up from 58% in 2019.
- 63% were interested in a telehealth follow-up, compared with 55% in 2019.
- 24% were concerned about privacy during a telehealth visit, versus 49% in 2019.
Also, about one-third of participants said they would feel comfortable if their first-time visit was a virtual visit. But about two-thirds said that quality of care in a telehealth visit was not as good as an in-person visit.
“As the coronavirus pandemic continues, telehealth has been a useful tool for older adults to access health care from the safety of their own homes, but we must be mindful that not everyone can access these services,” said Alison Bryant, senior vice president of research for AARP.
For more on telehealth, head to the HealthIT.gov .