A new study of Medicare data by the University of Michigan found telehealth facilitated about 1 in 10 outpatient appointments for older Americans over the last two years. The finding counters concerns about telehealth overuse during the pandemic, researchers say. 

It comes at a time when the COVID-19 public health emergency could be nearing an end and the Department of Health and Human Services must decide if it will continue to extend telehealth flexibilities.

“As telehealth use hits its stride in the Medicare fee-for-service population, the fears that flexible telehealth rules might lead to an increase in the total volume of outpatient visits has not panned out,” Chad Ellimoottil, M.D., lead author of the new study, said in a statement. “With all the evidence we have to date, it appears that telehealth has been used as a substitute for in-person care rather than an expansion of care.”

The research team found 1 in 3 seniors with traditional Medicare coverage saw a health care provider at least once in 2021, while the number of in-person visits declined during that time and in general since 2019.

Ellimottil said more analysis is needed to determine if the lower volume of outpatient services used by those seniors with fee-for-service Medicare plans is due to those patients foregoing routine care. In the second half of 2021, about 9% of outpatient visits by seniors with traditional Medicare coverage took place virtually, the study found. That was a decline from mid-2020 and the early part of 2021 when the COVID-19 pandemic was at its height. But the number of visits was greater than in 2019 when the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services strictly limited telehealth visits for Medicare beneficiaries. 

HHS is expected to again extend the COVID-19 public health emergency beyond mid-July. The omnibus bill signed into law last March extends telehealth flexibility an additional five months beyond the end of the PHE.