In January of 2017, the Quality Institute, in partnership with the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling, released a poll examining New Jersey residents’ experience with telehealth. We saw telehealth as a valuable way to extend access to care, and we wanted to know what people in New Jersey thought about this care and how many experienced it. At the time, our poll found that just 16 percent of people polled had any experience with telehealth. However, residents expressed an openness to trying telehealth, especially for visits to answer medication questions, to determine whether an in-person visit was needed, or for follow-up visits.
Fast forward five years, and the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our most recent poll with Eagleton, just released, found that 60 percent of New Jersey residents have used telehealth. The poll also found that 70 percent of New Jersey residents reported being very likely or somewhat likely to continue using telehealth services for medical care in the future.
The poll quantifies what we already knew: telehealth has fast become a significant way for people to get health care. The new data add urgency to efforts to better understand the quality, accessibility, and costs of virtual health care.
At the Quality Institute, in our Emerging From COVID-19: An Action Plan for A Healthier State, and in response to proposed changes to federal and state telehealth laws, we called on the State to examine the effectiveness and value of virtual health care in New Jersey before embedding any specific payment changes into law. Our Action Plan set forth the type of issues that should be reviewed, including:
- What is the quality of the telehealth visits?
- Are patients and caregivers satisfied with the care they received?
- Are providers satisfied they are providing meaningful and effective care?
- Is virtual health care accessible to all or most?
- What is the impact on overall health care spending?
The State Department of Health recently issued an RFP for a study into the quality and impact of telehealth in New Jersey, which we applaud and look forward to reading. The State must begin the hard work of determining how to get the most value out of this relatively new and evolving mode of care. Telehealth can be an important adjunct to in-person visits and, sometimes, a replacement. The State’s study could help us learn more about its effectiveness and limitations.
Nationally, large scale studies are finding positive results from telehealth visits. One study of more than 500,000 patients found that compared to patients with no telehealth visits, patients with either all telehealth visits or a mix of office and telehealth visits had comparable or better results on most of the quality measures evaluated. These findings are promising for providers looking to invest in telehealth to expand their reach — and to health plans looking to increase access in a time of health care staffing shortages. This is especially true for mental health, where patients continue to express strong satisfaction levels in virtual care options.
As more evidence comes out, we urge health care payers, providers, and regulators to use both the research and their experience with virtual health care to update how they regulate, deliver, and reimburse for telehealth. Now that we know that telehealth can deliver quality care for many people, let’s use these findings and the many more to come to develop regulations and payment designs that further, not stymie, its growth.