Primary, Specialty Care Physicians Favor Telehealth More Than Surgeons

By Anuja Vaidya

A majority of primary and specialty care physicians believe telehealth and in-person care quality are similar versus only half of surgical specialists.  

More than two-thirds of primary care physicians and medical specialists said they were able to provide similar quality of care via telehealth and in person, making them more likely to be satisfied with telehealth technology than surgical specialists, new federal data shows.

Published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), the data was gathered from the 2021 National Electronic Health Records Survey. The annual survey polls office-based physicians, except those specializing in anesthesiology, radiology, and pathology, practicing in the United States. The 2021 survey sampled 10,302 physicians, of which 1,875 responded to all key items on the survey.

Overall, telehealth use decreased among US physicians. More than half (53.9 percent) of primary care physicians used telehealth for less than 25 percent of visits, while only 14.7 percent used it for 50 percent of visits or more. Similarly, 63.3 percent of surgical specialists used telehealth for less than 25 percent of visits versus 5.5 percent who used it for 50 percent or more.

Medical specialists’ telehealth use, on the other hand, was higher. While 41.5 percent of medical specialists used telehealth for less than 25 percent of visits, 27.4 percent used it for 50 percent or more.

However, primary care and medical specialty physicians have more confidence in telehealth care quality than surgical specialists.

Nearly 77 percent of primary care physicians and 73.1 percent of medical specialists said that the quality of care they were able to provide during telehealth and in-person visits was similar “to some or a great extent.” Only half of surgical specialists (50.6 percent) said the same.

The survey shows similar trends regarding satisfaction with telehealth technology. Approximately 65.5 percent of primary care physicians and 63.6 percent of medical specialists were satisfied with telehealth technology, compared with only 49.5 percent of surgical specialists.

Further, 49.7 percent of surgical specialists indicated that telehealth was not appropriate for their specialty or type of patients compared to 15.5 percent of primary care physicians and 26.7 percent of medical specialists.

This data is critical as telehealth utilization continues to evolve across specialties post-public health emergency (PHE).

Another survey analysis revealed that psychiatrists were the top users of telehealth in 2022. The American Medical Association (AMA) analysis examined data from AMA’s Physician Practice Benchmark Surveys 2018-2022 and the 2022 quarterly Medicare Carrier Standard Analytic Files. The surveys had sample sizes of 3,500 physicians.

In 2022, a little over 83 percent of psychiatrists said they provided a video visit the week before the survey, compared to 66.8 percent of primary care physicians, 64.3 percent of medical specialists, and 45.3 percent of surgeons.

Psychiatrists were also most likely to have provided an audio-only visit in the prior week (64 percent) in 2022, followed by primary care physicians (59 percent), medical specialists (55.9 percent), and surgeons (47.5 percent).

In a different survey, physicians noted that patient-facing barriers impacted their use of telehealth. A 2023 report from the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) assessed the results of the 2021 National Electronic Health Record Survey of office-based physicians.

The most common patient-facing barriers cited in the report were challenges in using technology and lacking access to technology, with over two out of three physicians noting these. Other barriers included limited internet access and speed issues, the appropriateness of telehealth for their practice, and telehealth platforms being hard to use.  

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