Survey Suggests Virtual Care Could Keep Low-acuity Cases Out of Emergency Departments

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A new, national survey conducted by the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) and Social Sciences Research Solutions shows that access to telehealth keeps people out of emergency departments.

About one in seven people (14%) who used telehealth said they would have sought care in an emergency department or urgent care if telehealth was not available, and more than half of those people had their primary health issue resolved. The survey also found that consumers are likely to use telehealth in the future as it has served as a valuable tool for accessing routine and preventive care during the pandemic. However, challenges remain for rural residents and older adults age 65 and up.

The goal of the survey was to gain a better understanding of the quality and effectiveness of telehealth services and the barriers consumers faced over the past year. During COVID-19, many federal restrictions for telehealth were waived, and virtual care surged. Now health and government leaders are deciding the future of using this tool beyond the pandemic.

One-third of U.S. adults surveyed reported having a telehealth visit for themselves or a dependent last year, with Medicare beneficiaries (44%) having the most visits. The most common purpose for a telehealth visit was a preventive service, prescription refill, or routine visit for a chronic illness (63%). Rural residents said they were more likely to use telehealth for surgical consults than people living in non-rural areas.

According to the results, more than nine in 10 adults said they were satisfied with the quality of their visit and were equally satisfied with both audio and video telehealth visits. Older adults were more likely to use audio-only telephone services. Eight in 10 adults said their primary health issue was resolved.

“New telehealth flexibilities have allowed millions of Americans to access healthcare from home, and as our survey shows, telehealth has the potential to take non-emergency cases out of the emergency department,” said Marilyn Serafini, BPC’s health project director. “BPC encourages Congress to act swiftly to extend telehealth flexibilities beyond the public-health emergency to study their impact on consumers, providers, and payers in a post-pandemic world.”

Importantly, eight in 10 adults said they would likely use telehealth in the future. Fifty-five percent of black respondents said they would likely use telehealth for a routine visit for a chronic illness, compared to 45% of white respondents.

The survey also found that seniors had higher rates of telehealth use over the past year but faced significant challenges. Forty-five percent of adults reported technology-related difficulties accessing telehealth, including digital literacy, access to high-speed internet, and securing the appropriate devices. Thirty-five percent of rural residents and 42% of older adults said access to high-speed broadband was an obstacle, compared to 24% of non-rural residents and 21% of younger adults.

“Telehealth has helped transform the way healthcare has been delivered during COVID-19; however, broadband remains an obstacle that must be addressed, especially in rural areas,” said Walter Panzirer, trustee with the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, who funded the survey. “To accelerate care delivery, policymakers must provide and expand high-quality virtual care across the country. The technology is popular, effective, and addresses care disparities.”