About 5% of traditional Medicare patients who had telehealth visits were, according to a new study in JAMA Health Forum.
Since then, however, many states have restored restrictions that prevent physicians who are licensed in one state from having telehealth visits with patients unless they’re licensed in the state where the patients live.
This is not fair to many people who live in areas near state borders, the authors argued. For those patients, it is much more convenient to see their primary care physician in a virtual visit from home than to travel to the doctor’s office in another state. This convenience is enjoyed by most patients who reside elsewhere in their state because they’re seeing physicians who are licensed there.
Moreover, the paper said, patients who live in rural areas and in counties with relatively few physicians per capita would also benefit from relaxed telemedicine restrictions.
Using Medicare claims data, the researchers examined the characteristics of out-of-state (OOS) telemedicine visits for the 6 months from January to June 2021. They chose that period for two reasons: by then, health care had stabilized after the chaotic early phase of the pandemic, and in most states, the relaxation of licensing rules for OOS telehealth had not yet lapsed. Earlier periods of time were also used for certain types of comparisons.
Among fee-for-service Medicare beneficiaries, the number of OOS telemedicine visits peaked at 451,086 in April 2020 and slowly fell to 175,545 in June 2021, according to the study. The fraction of OOS telehealth visits among all virtual visits was 4.5% in April 2020 and increased to 5.6% by June 2021.
Staying close to home
Of all beneficiaries with a telemedicine visit in the study period, 33% lived within 15 miles of a state border. That cohort accounted for 57.2% of all OOS telemedicine visits.
The highest rates of OOS telehealth visits were seen in the District of Columbia (38.5%), Wyoming (25.6%), and North Dakota (21.1%). California (1%), Texas (2%), and Massachusetts (2.1%) had the lowest rates.
Though intuitive in retrospect, the correlation of OOS telemedicine use with proximity to state borders was one of the study’s most important findings, lead author Ateev Mehrotra, MD, a professor at Harvard Medical School, Boston, said in an interview. “It makes sense,” he said. “If you’re in D.C. and you need a cardiologist, you don’t think: ‘I’ll stay in D.C.’ No, Maryland is right there, so you might use a Maryland cardiologist. Now you’re out of state, even though that office might be only half a mile away from you.”
Similar dynamics, he noted, are seen in many metropolitan areas that border on other states, such as Cincinnati; Philadelphia; and Portland, Ore.
This finding lines up with another result of the study: The majority of patients who had OOS telemedicine visits had previously seen in person the doctor who conducted the virtual visit.
Across all OOS telemedicine visits in the first half of 2021, the researchers observed a prior in-person visit between March 2019 and the date of the virtual visit with the same patient and the same clinician in 62.8% of those visits. Across all in-state telehealth visits, 75.8% of them were made by patients who had seen the same clinician in person since March 2019. This preponderance of virtual visits to clinicians whom the patients had already seen in person reflects the fact that, during the pandemic, most physicians began conducting telehealth visits with their own patients, Dr. Mehrotra said.
It also lays to rest the concern that some states have had about allowing OOS telemedicine visits to physicians not licensed in those states, he added. “They think that all these docs from far away are going to start taking care of patients they don’t even know. But our study shows that isn’t the case. Most of the time, doctors are seeing a patient who’s switching over from in-person visits to out-of-state telemedicine.”