Telehealth became a common way for doctors to see patients during the early days of the pandemic.
New research suggests that surgical patients offered virtual care are far more likely to keep appointments before and after their operation than those who rely on in-person visits.
"Maintaining routine health care such as clinic visits helps prevent emergent visits, which are typically at a point in time when a patient's condition is much worse," said lead author Dr. Connie Shao, a general surgery resident at the University of Alabama Birmingham.
The findings were presented Monday at a meeting of the American College of Surgeons, in San Diego.
"Staying engaged with the health care system with timely care before and after surgery improves quality care, reduces costs for the patient, and helps ensure our patients are able to maintain a higher level of health," Shao said in a meeting news release.
Her team used data from seven clinics at the University of Alabama Birmingham to study this issue.
On average, patients were 60 years old. They had surgery between January 2018 and December 2021 and made more than 553,000 visits.
In all, 11.3% of patients were no-shows. The no-show rate was highest for in-person appointments (11.7%) compared to 2.5% for virtual visits.
"Low access to transportation is the number one reason for patient no-show visits," Shao said. "Telemedicine is a feasible way for us to reach out to patients who would otherwise have a lot of barriers to access the health care system.”
Older patients were less likely to be no-shows, according to the study. No-shows were also less common before the pandemic.
Different groups made different choices. Men were 12% more likely to skip appointments than women. Black patients were 68% more likely to be no-shows than white patients, and Asian patients were 32% more likely to miss an appointment.
Medicaid patients were twice as likely to skip appointments compared to those with private insurance. Patients from counties with a higher Social Vulnerability Index, a measure of poverty and other stresses on health, were 13% more likely be no-shows.
"Hopefully, with the convenience of telemedicine now, the only bridge that we have to cross is the digital divide," Shao said, adding that doctors have teamed up with a community group to teach people, especially older and more vulnerable ones, how to use take advantage of virtual appointments.
Shao is now developing guidelines for postsurgical use of telemedicine.
"Telemedicine interventions such as training patients and offering more low-tech options, such as audio only, especially for patients who live far away, is an easier option," she said. "Some care is better than no care."
Findings presented at medical meetings are considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has more on telehealth.
SOURCE: American College of Surgeons, news release, Oct. 16, 2022