Before the outbreak of COVID-19, there were signs that telehealth was slowly but steadily growing in popularity from year to year. But it wasn't until early 2020, when the novel coronavirus pandemic began in earnest in the U.S., that telemedicine services exploded in popularity, per the American Hospital Association.
In February of 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began telling health care providers to start practicing social distancing — specifically, for example, by offering telemedicine services whenever possible.
Other changes soon followed. In March 2020, Medicare broadened access to telehealth services, allowing people to receive a wider range of care from their physicians via telemedicine — and for the same cost as an in-person visit.
Since then, the telehealth phenomenon has shown no signs of slowing down. The industry is poised to expand dramatically in the coming years, even as social distancing guidelines are relaxed and more people become eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.
Here's a closer look at telehealth in the U.S.
Pre-pandemic, telehealth appointments in the U.S. were estimated to account for fewer than 1 percent of all outpatient visits. In March to April of 2020, that number jumped to 80 percent of visits in some areas of the country, according to a March 2021 report in JAMA Network Open.
Here are a few more statistics about telehealth's popularity:
Telehealth: Pre- and Post-COVID-19
There was a 154 percent increase in telehealth visits during the last week of March 2020 compared to the same week in March 2019, according to the CDC.
According to the 2021 report in JAMA Network Open, telemedicine appointments accounted for:
- 0.3% of outpatient visits in 2019
- 24% of outpatient visits in 2020
Telehealth Visits by Technology
The majority of telehealth visits took place over video, according to the JAMA Network Open study. Here are the most common ways people use telemedicine:
- 75% of telehealth visits were done by video
- 9% of telehealth visits were done by telephone
- 3% of telehealth visits were done by email, chat or a similar service
*13% of reported telehealth visits didn't specify the type of technology that was used
Telehealth’s Popularity by Specialty
Some doctors' appointments are easier to do online than others. Here's a breakdown of the diagnoses that were given via telehealth appointments in February 2021, by percentage, according to FAIR Health, a nonprofit organization that aims to bring transparency to health care costs:
- 55% of telehealth claims were for mental health conditions
- 3% of telehealth claims were for joint and soft tissue diseases and issues
- 3% of telehealth claims were for developmental disorders
- 2% of telehealth claims were for acute respiratory diseases and infections
- 2% of telehealth claims were for hypertension
Here's a breakdown of the top mental health telehealth claims in February 2021:
- 28% were for generalized anxiety disorder
- 23% were for major depressive disorder
- 19% were for adjustment disorders
- 7% were for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder
- 5% were for bipolar disorder
Telehealth Visits by Outcome
Most of the patients who had a telehealth visit in early 2020 were able to manage their care at home, which reduced the need for people to visit a doctor's office, according to the CDC. Here's how people fared after their telemedicine appointment:
- 69% of people managed their care at home
- 26% of people were advised to seek a follow-appointment from their primary care provider as needed, or if their condition worsened or didn't improve
- 3% of people were referred to urgent care
- 1.5% of people were told to seek care in an emergency department
Telehealth Demographics and Prevalence
During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth services were more popular in certain areas of the U.S. — in particular, bigger cities and locations in the Northeast.
However, these areas may also have been hit with higher rates of COVID-19 at the time, so it's unclear whether these telehealth trends will continue after the pandemic subsides.
Telehealth Visits by U.S. Region
Some regions of the U.S. are more likely to use telehealth than others. Here are the percentages of all private insurance claims that were for telemedicine visits in March 2020 by region, according to FAIR Health:
- 6.5% of medical claims were for telemedicine visits in the Western U.S. (Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming)
- 5% of medical claims were for telemedicine visits in the Midwestern U.S. (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, South Dakota, Wisconsin)
- 6% of medical claims were for telemedicine visits in the Southern U.S. (Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia)
- 11% of medical claims were for telemedicine visits in the Northeastern U.S. (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont)
Telehealth Visits by Regional COVID-19 Status
Virtual visits were higher in states that were considered COVID-19 "hot spots" (where the novel coronavirus was spreading rapidly) during March to June of 2020, according to the JAMA Network Open study.
- 36% of all appointments were done via telehealth in COVID-19 "hot spot" states
- 22% of all appointments were done via telehealth in states with a lower prevalence of COVID-19
Telehealth Visits by Urban vs. Rural Location
People who live in urban areas are more likely to use telehealth than people who live in rural areas. During March to June 2020:
- 24% of appointments in urban areas were done via telehealth
- 14% of appointments in rural areas were done via telehealth
Telehealth Visits by Age
Telehealth users vary considerably by age. Here's a breakdown of who's using telehealth by percentages, according to the CDC:
- 69% of people ages 18 to 49
- 8.6% of people ages 5 to 17
- 3.5% of people under the age of 5
Telehealth Visits by Sex
More people assigned female at birth (AFAB) use telehealth than people assigned male at birth (ABAF). Here are the percentages of people using telemedicine by sex, according to the CDC:
- 63% of people AFAB
- 37% of people AMAB
Telehealth Visits by Race
Some research shows that, because of the pandemic, Black Americans are more likely than white Americans to report using telehealth.
Here are the percentages of people who scheduled at least one telemedicine appointment with their doctor, according to data collected between June 9, 2020 and July 6, 2020, from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS):
- 27% of non-Hispanic Black Americans
- 25% of non-Hispanic White Americans
- 22% of Hispanic Americans
- 20% of Americans of other races
Telehealth Industry Stats
The popularity — and value — of telemedicine services skyrocketed after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here's a closer look at where the industry is headed, and what might continue holding it back.
Telehealth Industry Market Value
Before the pandemic, the telehealth industry was worth an estimated $3 billion, according to a report by McKinsey & Company. Post-pandemic, that amount could climb to about $250 billion.
Barriers to Telehealth Access
After the outbreak of COVID-19, Medicare expanded the range of telemedicine services that were covered and began paying for all telemedicine visits at the same rate as in-person visits. But not everyone can access telehealth services equally.
Here are the percentages of people who lack access to certain digital tools, according to a study published August 2020 in JAMA Internal Medicine, which surveyed nearly 650,000 people:
- 41% of Medicare beneficiaries don't have access to a desktop or laptop computer with a high-speed Internet connection at home
- 41% of Medicare beneficiaries don't have a smartphone with a wireless data plan
- 26% of Medicare beneficiaries don't have access to either
Some people may also be reluctant to use telehealth services because they have privacy concerns. Out of the 600 most commonly used mobile health apps, only about 31% have privacy policies, according to an August 2020 study in Family Medicine and Community Health.
Is This an Emergency?
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Trends in the Use of Telehealth During the Emergence of the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, January–March 2020"
- JAMA Network Open: "In-Person and Telehealth Ambulatory Contacts and Costs in a Large US Insured Cohort Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic"
- FAIR Health: "Monthly Telehealth Regional Tracker"
- National Center for Health Statistics: "Telemedicine"
- McKinsey & Company: "Telehealth: A Quarter-Trillion-Dollar Post-COVID-19 Reality?"
- JAMA Internal Medicine: "Assessment of Disparities in Digital Access Among Medicare Beneficiaries and Implications for Telemedicine"
- Family Medicine & Community Health: "Telemedicine, the Current COVID-19 Pandemic and the Future: A Narrative Review and Perspectives Moving Forward in the USA"