A significant proportion of patients want telehealth services to remain a permanent part of healthcare, newly released results from a national poll show.
Sponsored by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), the findings show 82% of survey respondents have used telehealth services and 43% want to them to continue, even after the pandemic is over.
The results aren’t that surprising: an APA poll in the middle of last year showed a dramatic increase in the use of telepsychiatry among its physician members.
Before the pandemic, 62% of physician respondents did not see any of their patients via telepsychiatry. In contrast, after the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, 86% were seeing nearly all of their patients using the technology.
“We knew that telepsychiatry was already on the rise and that it was an important tool,” APA president Vivian Pender, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry, Weill Cornell Medical Center, New York City, told Medscape Medical News.
“The new poll confirmed that most people prefer the ease of the appointment (virtually or by phone) and they’re actually signaling a preference to continue using these services, and the APA supports that.”
The survey of 1000 adults conducted earlier this year showed 38% of respondents have used telehealth services to meet with a medical or mental health professional. That’s up from 31% in a national poll from the APA conducted last September.
Some 82% of telehealth users now report they have accessed remote care since the start of the pandemic. Most survey respondents use telehealth through an online app such as Zoom, FaceTime, or Skype (69%) whereas 38% report using phone calls only.
Some 59% of respondents agreed they would use telehealth or telepsychiatry for a mental health concern or illness, up from 49% in 2020.
About 45% of survey respondents report the quality of care received in a telehealth session can be the same as that of an in-person office visit, a rate that was only 40% in 2020.
In addition, the percentage of respondents reporting they prefer telehealth to an in-person doctor visit rose from 31% in 2020 to 34% in 2021.
The increasing popularity of virtual mental health services might be because it can be done in private.
“Some people have been reticent to use psychiatrists because of the stigma and discrimination involved,” said Pender. “Telepsychiatry in a way can eliminate that stigma.”
There’s a strong possibility that virtual visits will also help with the opioid overdose epidemic, said Pender. Patients with addiction who “shun” in-office visits might be more comfortable accessing telepsychiatry.
Pender believes psychiatrists were able to “pivot more quickly” to telehealth than other medical specialists because psychiatric care doesn’t require physical examinations.
She noted that a few of her elderly patients find it difficult to navigate the virtual platforms but that this is easily overcome via telephone sessions.
Here to Stay
The new poll showed younger adults were more likely than others to report they would use telehealth for mental health services — 66% of those age 18 to 29 vs 36% of those age 65 and older.
This may be because older people are “used to the tradition” of “seeing the doctor in person” or because younger people “are willing to experiment with something new,” said Pender.
Although telepsychiatry has helped eliminate some barriers to mental health care, including transportation costs and having to take time off work, its increased popularity has raised some scheduling issues for psychiatrists.
“We’re seeing more patients and seeing them at odd hours and so there’s somewhat of a risk of burnout for psychiatrists,” said Pender.
Is telepsychiatry superior to in-person mental health care? “I don’t think we are there yet,” said Pender. “But I think we will be able to do that study when we have some time behind us and we have all the data to look at.”
Importantly, 43% of respondents said they want to use telehealth after the coronavirus pandemic is over.
Pender believes telepsychiatry is here to stay and that it represents the future. There will likely be “hybrid” treatment options for patients, she said. In her experience, patients want to see her in person “once in a while” but to use telehealth for all other sessions.
The online survey was conducted between March 26 and April 5, 2021. The equivalent margin of error is +/- 3.1 percentage points.