Public Release: 

Study examines use of telemedicine among rural medicare beneficiaries

The JAMA Network Journals

Although the number of Medicare telemedicine visits increased more than 25 percent a year for the past decade, in 2013, less than 1 percent of rural Medicare beneficiaries received a telemedicine visit, according to a study appearing in the May 10, 2016 issue of JAMA.

Medicare limits telemedicine reimbursement to select live video encounters with the patient at a clinic or facility in a rural area. Federal legislation has been proposed to expand Medicare telemedicine coverage. Ateev Mehrotra, M.D., of Harvard Medical School, Boston, and colleagues examined trends in telemedicine utilization in Medicare from 2004-2013 using claims from a 20 percent random sample of traditional Medicare beneficiaries.

The researchers found that telemedicine visits among rural Medicare beneficiaries increased from 7,015 in 2004 to 107,955 in 2013 (annual visit growth rate, 28 percent); 0.7 percent of rural beneficiaries received a telemedicine visit in 2013. Most visits occurred in outpatient clinics; 12.5 percent occurred in a hospital or skilled nursing facility. Mental health conditions were responsible for 79 percent of visits. Rural beneficiaries who received a 2013 telemedicine visit were more likely to be younger than 65 years, have entered Medicare due to disability, have more illnesses, and live in a poorer community compared with those who did not receive a telemedicine visit.

"Proposed federal legislation would encourage greater use of telemedicine through expanded reimbursement. In contrast to others, we found that state laws that mandate commercial insurance reimbursement of telemedicine were not associated with faster growth in Medicare telemedicine use. Our results emphasize that nonreimbursement factors may be limiting growth of telemedicine including state licensure laws and restrictions that a patient must be hosted at a clinic or facility," the authors write.

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(doi:10.1001/jama.2016.2186; this study is available pre-embargo at the For The Media website.)

Editor's Note: This article was supported by an unrestricted gift to Harvard Medical School by Melvin Hall and CHSi Corporation. All authors have completed and submitted the ICMJE Form for Disclosure of Potential Conflicts of Interest and none were reported.

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