Upstate N.Y. health insurer finds telehealth on the rise

Telemedicine is on the rise in upstate New York, nearly tripling in use over the past two years, according to Rochester, N.Y.-based Excellus BlueCross BlueShield.

Excellus, an independent licensee of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association and a nonprofit health plan with 1.5 million upstate New York members, names awareness and increased availability of reimbursement as reasons for the increase.

According to Excellus, its members made 14,790 telemedicine visits in 2018—up from 5,137 in 2016. “Extrapolating our experience to the state as a whole, we estimate that New Yorkers made more than 180,000 telemedicine visits last year, leading us to the conclusion that this additional method of receiving care is quickly emerging,” says Stephen Cohen, MD, senior vice president and corporate medical director for Excellus BCBS.

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A study of upstate New York’s telehealth usage commissioned by Excellus and conducted by One Research earlier this year revealed awareness of the service availability is growing rapidly.

Among the 2,004 respondents of the survey, more than half said they know about telemedicine. Five percent reported to have used it, and among those who have used telemedicine, 93 percent were happy with the experience. Some 43 percent of all respondents said they would consider using telemedicine in the future.

Cohen says Excellus suspects that some telemedicine visits occur because patients cannot immediately get appointments for minor conditions but would like to address their issues sooner.

Among a sample of the health plan’s members who used telemedicine last year, about 4 percent reported their telemedicine visit helped them avoid going to a hospital’s emergency department. Had the telemedicine option not been available, 55 percent of respondents said that they would have used an urgent care center, 26 percent said they would have seen their primary care physician, 10 percent said they would have delayed getting care, and the remainder didn’t specify what they would have done.

More than three-quarters (78 percent) of the telehealth visits made by Excellus members in 2018 were for standard medical care, with heart disease, hypertension, skin disorders, diabetes and pneumonia ranking among the top reasons.

The balance (22 percent) of the telehealth visits were for behavioral health services, with the main reasons for those visits including: anxiety, depression, childhood or adolescence disorders, attention deficit disorder and bipolar disorder. Excellus says psychiatrist visits were one of the fastest-growing areas of telemedicine care.

“Telemedicine is helping patients see their psychiatrists for their medication management,” Cohen says. “Patients can get quicker access to address their behavioral health needs. And we’ve learned that our members like being able to consult with their psychiatrists from the comfort and privacy of their homes.”

Although telemedicine “isn’t the answer for everything,” Cohen notes, the survey results show telehealth is a valuable tool that enhances care. “Patients are using telemedicine for quick check-ins on their chronic conditions. Families are putting their doctors in their pockets when they go on vacation. Kids are using it when they go off to college. We’re seeing folks from rural areas more easily getting basic care and follow up care from specialists using telemedicine without having to travel long distances.”

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