Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States last spring, Americans have shown an explosion of interest in telemedicine — medical care delivered remotely through technology, such as video conferencing services and mobile apps.
According to the latest survey data gathered by CivicScience, the percentage of American adults who have tried remote health services has nearly quadrupled since the beginning of the pandemic, from only 11% last January to a full 39% today.
Meanwhile, over the same span of time, the share of adults who say they’ve never heard of telemedicine or are not interested in it dropped 33%, from 70% in January 2020 down to 47% today.
Yet despite Americans’ enthusiastic embrace last year, growth in telemedicine has slowed considerably in recent months, raising the question of whether we’ve reached peak levels of adoption.
Over the last six months, the percentage of adults who say they’ve tried telemedicine has risen by only one percentage point per month on average. Additionally the number of people who say they intend to give telemedicine a try has fallen consistently since last spring. In March 2020, nearly 1 in 3 adults said they intended to try telemedicine in the near future. So far this month, fewer than 1 in 8 said the same.
For What Types of Care Are Americans Using Telemedicine?
Before the pandemic, telemedicine was primarily the domain of a select few medical specialities, such as radiology and psychiatry. And even then, sometimes just as a way for physicians to collaborate with peers at a distance. However, that’s no longer the case now as use for telemedicine has become more widespread and varied.
In recent polling, Americans cited visits with general practitioners — for both well visits and sick visits — as the most common reason for using telemedicine.
Has Telemedicine Lived up to its Potential?
Many health experts have been optimistic that widespread usage of telemedicine will eventually help create a more equitable and inclusive healthcare system in America.
After all, by eliminating a few critical barriers to care, such as commutes to clinics and long wait times at offices, telemedicine can potentially improve access to care for millions of Americans.
But if reported satisfaction with remote care is any indicator, it seems telemedicine hasn’t yet delivered on this lofty goal. Even in a virtual environment, disparities in satisfaction with care persist along racial, cultural, and socioeconomic lines.
For instance, even though Americans as a whole are less satisfied with telemedicine today than earlier in the pandemic — the percentage of adults who report trying and liking remote healthcare dropped from a high of 73% last March to 67% today — dissatisfaction is especially pronounced among Black adults, lesbian and gay Americans, and those from lower-income households.
In the last two months, only 46% of Black respondents — compared with 68% of White respondents and 63% of Hispanic or Latino respondents — said they were satisfied with their telemedicine experiences.
In addition, 32% of adults who identify as gay or lesbian say they like virtual doctor’s visits, which is almost half the share among adults who identify as straight (60%).
And with the exception of those in very high-income households, those in households earning less than $100,000 a year are not as satisfied with telemedicine than those in households earning more than $100,000 a year, a pattern we also noted in our last report.
Disparities along economic lines are also apparent in comparisons between groups with different types of health insurance coverage.
Only 34% of those who pay for their own health insurance say they are satisfied with telemedicine. Among those who receive insurance through government assistance (e.g., Medicare and Medicaid), the number is only slightly higher at 38%. In contrast, nearly two-thirds of individuals who receive their health insurance through their employer (65%) are happy with remote health services.
Prior data collected by CivicScience suggest that two-fifths of those who pay for their own insurance, a plurality, reside in households earning less than $50,000 a year; the same is true for nearly three-fifths of those who receive insurance through government assistance (58%).
So what does the future hold for virtual healthcare? If virtual services remain a permanent fixture of U.S. healthcare, that just makes it even more important to understand precisely why some people and groups are unhappy with it.