March 26 (UPI) -- Nearly 40% of new surgical patient consultations in Michigan were conducted via telehealth at the height of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in April 2020, an analysis published Friday by JAMA Surgery found.
Just under 17% of new patient visits to surgeons statewide between March 8 and June 6 of last year were completed using telehealth, the data showed. From June 7 through Sept. 5, that figure fell to 3%, the researchers said.
The findings suggest an increased use of telehealth among surgeons, a specialty not traditionally associated with the approach, during the pandemic, researchers said.
"Telehealth is a viable way for patients to access surgical care," study co-author Dr. Grace Chao told UPI in an email.
"We show ... that telehealth was successfully used for many surgical visits across different surgical specialties. My hope is that surgeons will continue to use [it] after the pandemic," said Chao, who works with the National Clinician Scholars Program at Veterans Affairs Ann Arbor.
The approach allows patients to access care without having to pay for transportation, parking, and childcare services, or take time off from work, she added.
Using telehealth, healthcare providers can deliver services and information to patients virtually, by phone or video chat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Although it cannot replace in-person treatment, the approach has allowed patients to avoid visiting healthcare facilities during the pandemic for consultations, potentially reducing their exposure to the virus, according to Chao and her colleagues.
Telehealth use is rising, particularly among older adults who are at increased risk for severe COVID-19, research indicates.
For this study, Chao and her colleagues analyzed claims data from an insurance company in Michigan over three periods in 2020: January to March, March to June and June to September.
Among more than 4,400 practicing surgeons included in the analysis, nearly 60% offered telehealth consults and 27% used them for new patients, the data showed.
However, before March 2020, fewer than 1% of new patient visits to surgeons were conducted using telehealth.
It's use "peaked" in April 2020, the height of the pandemic's first wave, facilitating 35% of all new patient visits to surgeons during the second week of the month, the data showed.
Use of telehealth fell again to 3% between June 7 and Sept. 5, when restrictions on elective surgical procedures instituted to limit the spread of COVID-19 were lifted in many parts of the country, including Michigan, even though case numbers remained high.
"From our experience, in addition to new patient visits, surgeons can also use telehealth for follow-up visits and for visits after surgery to check and to see how patients are doing," Chao said.
"For patients without any complications after surgery, telehealth might save them time and money in traveling to clinic and missing work," she said.