As telehealth continues to grow in popularity, heavily spurred by the effects of COVID-19, many patients and providers are looking for answers to some important questions. Is telehealth as effective as in-person care? Will more visits be required to see the same functional results? Are patients reacting positively or negatively to the altered medium of care?
Whether you’re a doctor, rehab therapists, traditional therapists, or someone looking for care—these questions matter. Up until recently, the research to answer these questions was scarce. A few small studies existed, but nothing that measured the incredibly important results on a larger scale.
Thankfully, the data geniuses over at Net Health, an electronic health record (EHR) provider, looked heavily at the efficacy of telehealth in today’s tumultuous climate. And while the study was aimed specifically at rehab therapy, it’s a fairly safe assumption that the results can be extrapolated to traditional telehealth visits and online therapy for things like couples counseling, marriage counseling, depression help, anxiety help, and more.
Overview and Details of the Rehab Telehealth Study
The Net Health telehealth study looked at over 40,000 episodes of care where some level of telehealth was used. The specific episodes of care occurred during the summer months of 2020, while the health system was already stretched thin because of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is of particular important because it allows us to see the effects and results of telehealth battle tested during one of the toughest times in the country’s history.
The study utilized propensity score matching (PSM) and 98 different variables to group similar cases and episodes of care. PSM is the industry gold-standard when it comes to studying data from events that have already occurred. In a standard experiment, you’d hand-select participants to be as similar as possible. With data that’s already happened, that’s not possible.
Instead, PSM works backwards and groups people of similar age and health characteristics together. While it’s not perfect, it’s widely accepted as the gold-standard among the research community for these types of studies.
The telehealth research study broke down cases into four groups based on the level of telehealth provided:
- ‘All’ telehealth – These patients received 100% of their rehab therapy treatment via telehealth.
- ‘Most’ telehealth – These patients receive greater than 50% but less than 100% of their therapy via telehealth.
- ‘Few’ telehealth – These patients receive some telehealth therapy but less than 50% of their total therapy via the medium.
- ‘No’ telehealth – The benchmark and control were patients that only received in-person treatment and care.
Within these three levels, the research study looked at three metrics to draw conclusions.
- Functional status – The study looked at the increase or decrease in functional status of the patient.
- Number of visits – The study looked at the number of visits each patient had to complete treatment.
- Patient satisfaction – Patient satisfaction with the results of the treatment was measured.
In other words:
- Did patients see better, worse, or consistent functional outcomes?
- Did patients have to come in (or log in) more or fewer times to see these results?
- Were patients more or less satisfied with telehealth?
Conclusions From the Net Health Study
The results of the study were quite eye-opening, especially for those that might be heavily scrutinizing the idea of telehealth.
- The functional status of the patients were relatively the same, whether they had used no telehealth or any of the other intensity levels. In other words, telehealth was equally as effective as in-person care with delivering results.
- The average number of visits for patients using any degree of telehealth were two to three fewer than patients only using in-person care. In other words, the data suggest that telehealth can get equal results in a shorter period of time. The study does point out that additional research is needed to fully validate this suggestion.
- When asked about their satisfaction with the results, patients were equally satisfied across the board. In other words, people were no less happy with the quality of their treatment when telehealth was used.
So, in other words, the telehealth research study showed equal quality of results in fewer visits with clients just as happy. And what’s really interesting is that the results were the same with each level of telehealth. In other words, it’s not an all-or-none type solution. You don’t have to implement telehealth across the board to see these benefits. Telehealth can be used to augment traditional treatment regimens.
How This Applies to Online Therapy
So, what does this all have to do with traditional therapy? For transparency, yes, it would be ideal to see a similar study directed at other types of therapy. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t pull some conclusions and steps forward from this study. If rehab therapy, which we’d suggest generally requires a much more hands-on approach can thrive through telehealth, one could draw the conclusion that traditional therapy should thrive as well.
If the results do crossover, patients should be happy to know that they can get the same results without having to leave the house and possibly in fewer visits.
For providers, this could mean an opportunity to expand business into the telehealth realm. You can increase your geographical reach, increase the number of patients you can see, and ultimately, drive your efficiencies through the roof.
Again, this telehealth study comes from the rehab therapy world. However, it’s hard to argue that there’s not going to be at a minimum some crossover benefits and at a maximum—even better results.
What This Means for Patients Looking for Help
If the crossover of the conclusions between rehab therapy and traditional psychology, therapy, and psychiatry is true, it means a lot for patients. You’ll be able to get similar results without the need to leave your home. In addition, some of the added benefits of online therapy for patients include:
- Less geographical limitations on who you can choose to be your doctor
- Less chances of needing to get a new doctor if you happen to move
- Flexibility to have your sessions from anywhere (home, vacation, etc.)
- Potential cost savings with some providers
- No travel needs or transportation limitations
- The ability with some providers to contact them at any time