Virtual “urgent care” may lead to higher rates of follow-up care

April 8, 2021

A new University of Michigan study casts some doubt on whether direct-to-consumer virtual care will reduce in-person visits, according to a news release from the university.

Published in Health Affairs, the study finds that patients who had an on-demand virtual care visit for an upper respiratory infection in the three years before the pandemic began were slightly more likely to receive additional follow-up care than similar patients who had their first visit in person.

The study compared data from more than 28,700 virtual visits with data from more than 57,400 in-person visits for acute respiratory infections in 2016 through 2019. Those visits, and any follow-up care, were all covered by a large insurer. All the virtual visits were done through a direct-to-consumer telehealth company that the insurer had partnered with.

The authors say it’s important to note that the vast majority of the patients did not require any further care for their infections, which included ear infections, bronchitis, laryngitis, sore throat and pneumonia.

But 10.3% of the patients first seen through a direct-to-consumer telehealth visit ended up having an in-person visit in the next week, compared with 5.9% of those who had their first visit in person. This includes second telemedicine visits or visits to clinics, urgent care centers and emergency rooms.

Less than 1% of all the patients in the study visited an emergency department after their initial visit, and the percentage was only slightly lower among people whose first visit was through a direct-to-consumer virtual provider compared with those who started with an in-person visit.

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