Study: Telehealth increased office visits, had minimal health benefits

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A recent study from the University of Wisconsin found that encouraging patients to use online care options increases the number of office visits and phone calls and reduces the number of new patients providers can accept.

The reason? These providers feel an added obligation to see those patients in person.

The study, which covered five years of healthcare encounters for over 140,000 patients with 90 providers, found that providers who adopted e-visit programs experienced a six percent increase in office visits.

Those additional visits caused an increase of 45 minutes per month of additional time doctors spent on those visits.

“Offering e-visits seems like a great way to save time and money by reducing the need for office visits because routine questions or updates could be done via email,” Hessam Bavafa, Wisconsin School of Business assistant professor of operations and information management -- and lead researcher -- said in a statement.

“The problem is that healthcare is much more complicated -- patients may overreact to minor symptoms or not be clear enough in describing their situation and that leads to doctors feeling obligated to schedule an office visit,” he said.

Further, providers can also get insufficient or ambiguous information that makes it tough to adequately diagnose the issue, resulting in an additional office visit.

And to cover the time lost during those additional office visits, there was a 15 percent reduction in the number of new patients seen each month by providers.

To further the blow: researchers found “no observable improvement in patient health between those utilizing e-visits and those who did not.”
“In fact, the additional office visits appear to crowd out some care to those not using e-visits,” said Bavafa.

So while patients view telemedicine as a convenient and low-cost alternative to accessing care, it actually adds issues for the provider. However, providers not at capacity that employ e-health will find more benefit from using the platform and have no issue adding office visits.

Those struggling with physician shortages may benefit from more structured telemedicine visits, such as establishing structured questions for patients before a visit to provide better details about the issue.

“E-visits are just one feature of the online portals being offered by many providers that allow patients to access lab results, medical histories, appointment schedules and prescriptions,” said Bavafa. “By taking a closer look at how both patients and providers are responding to this new model of service delivery, we can try to make this channel a more effective tool for improving the health care system.”