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Telehealth technologies such as patient portals and mobile apps can help lower healthcare costs by making it easier for patients and providers to communicate, thus reducing the need for office visits.
Theoretically, anyway. But in a five-year study by the University of Wisconsin and the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, researchers found that when more patients used telehealth, or e-visits, office visits and phone calls actually increased. And this had the effect of curtailing the number of new patients providers were able to accept.
More specifically, providers that offered e-visit options to current patients saw a 6 percent rise in office visits, resulting in providers spending 45 more minutes per month seeing these patients.
“E-visits trigger additional office visits, contrary to common expectations that they serve as a substitute,” the researchers wrote. “We are able to show that the increase in office visits crowds out some phone visits to patients who do not adopt e-visits. We also show that provider e-visit adoption is linked to about a 15 percent reduction in the number of new patients each month, challenging notions that e-visits may increase provider capacity by offloading some care to an online channel.”
However, the impact of e-visits on a particular provider may depend, researchers said, “on the extent to which a system is (a) at capacity, and (b) compensated on a fee-for-service basis.”
“In particular, the bottom line will improve for health systems which are not at capacity and in which physician compensation is primarily on a fee-for-service basis since e-visits can increase physician utilization,” the study concluded. “Systems that are already at capacity or paid on a capitation basis may not see the benefits of e-visits that they expect, since the additional visits by existing patients may reduce capacity for new patients without necessarily generating incremental revenue.”
The study drew on data from more than 140,000 patients and 90 providers.