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Study: Behavioral Health, Not COVID Symptoms, Fueled Early Surge in Telehealth Usage

January 12, 2021

A RAND study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research finds that telehealth usage soared during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it was behavioral health diagnoses largely driving the surge, not COVID-related symptoms.

Usage of services provided by telehealth company Doctor On Demand was analyzed for February through June in 2019 and 2020. Visits were divided into four categories:

  • Respiratory illness
  • Unscheduled behavioral health
  • Scheduled behavioral health
  • Chronic illness

Among the study’s findings:

The volume of overall visits increased 59% above baseline for March through April 7, then declined through the week of June 2 (15% above baseline).

Respiratory illness visits increased 30% above baseline through the week of March 24, then declined 65% below baseline through the week of June 2

Meanwhile, unscheduled behavioral health visits through April increased 109% above baseline and chronic illness visits increased 131% above baseline in the same period. These categories saw declines through the week of June 2 to 69% above baseline and 37% above baseline, respectively.

In their report, the researchers noted that overall telehealth visits studied peaked around the same time as emergency department visits across the U.S. hit their lowest point, suggesting that demand for telehealth was linked with a hesitation to seek in-person care. The researchers also noted that it was difficult to ascertain whether the rise in demand for virtual behavioral health visits was related to a higher incidence of mental health concerns caused by pandemic-related stressors or a reduced capacity of providers practicing in communities.

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