Approximately two-thirds of pediatric acute care concerns managed in telemedicine visits required no additional visits or follow-up, based on data from more than 600 visits.
The increase in use of telemedicine during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic enabled access to care and connection to doctors for many pediatric patients, said Kristina Kissiova, MD, of Children’s National Health System, Washington, and colleagues. Some advantages of telemedicine include enhanced medical homes, reduced health care costs, and less crowding and wait time for patients in offices and emergency departments; however, the optimal use of telemedicine for acute primary care has not been examined, they said.
In a study presented at the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies, the researchers conducted a retrospective chart review of 638 acute care telemedicine visits conducted by 21 health care providers at a single practice in Washington in October 2020 and November 2020. Approximately half of the patients were male, 65% were white, and 89% had commercial insurance. The most common age group was 6-12 years (23%), followed by 2-3 years (16%), 3-6 years (15%), and 12-18 years (14%).
The primary outcome was the number and nature of visits completed via telemedicine without the need for referral or a subsequent in-person visit. Telemedicine visits for well-child checks and follow-up visits were excluded.
Overall, 60% of the visits (384 of 638) were completed over telemedicine with no need for additional visits or referrals. The most common acute complaints were upper respiratory infections, dermatologic issues, gastrointestinal issues, COVID-19 related issues, and fever (18.7%, 16.3%, 12.9%, 11.9%, and 10.3%, respectively).
Of these, dermatologic and GI concerns were most often completed via telemedicine (93.3% and 81.7%, respectively), while upper respiratory tract infections and fever issues were the least likely to be completed via telemedicine (22.7% and 13.6%), mainly because of the need to report for in-person COVID-19 testing, the researchers said.
Among other less common chief complaints, 100% of breathing concerns, behavior/mental health concerns, and head trauma or falls were addressed via telemedicine without additional referrals or follow-up visits. In addition, 90.9% of urgent care or emergency department follow-ups, 88.9% of ear concerns, and 87.5% of eye concerns were completely resolved via telemedicine visits.
Overall, 3% of patients who were not referred after a telemedicine visit presented in person for worsening symptoms. Of these who were referred after a telemedicine visit, 90% were seen in person within 48 hours.
The study findings were limited by the inclusion of data from only a single center. However, “These early findings provide insight into the utility of telehealth in the primary care setting for a broad array of urgent concerns,” the researchers concluded.
Pandemic propelled telemedicine to improve patient care
The widespread adoption of telemedicine in primary care has been a beneficial side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Tim Joos, MD, a Seattle-based clinician with a combination internal medicine/pediatrics practice, in an interview.
“Toward the end of World War II and in the push to form the United Nations, Winston Churchill was credited with the saying, ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste,’” said Dr. Joos, who was not connected with the study.
“As awful as this pandemic has been, it has propelled health care delivery at an unprecedented pace into the digital age,” he noted.
The current study is important because it highlights the number of complaints that can be successfully resolved through telemedicine, offering patients and families quicker access and more options for care, Dr. Joos said.
“I feel that giving patients and families an open choice for either telemedicine or in-person visits improves the likelihood that the issue will be resolved efficiently and satisfactorily with fewer visits,” he added.