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Audio-Only Telemedicine In Primary Care: Embraced In The NHS, Second Rate In The US

Use of telemedicine in primary care soared in the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and remains well above pre-pandemic levels. In the US, a major enabler of this shift is equal reimbursement across video, audio, and in-person visits. Policy makers must now choose whether to extend these COVID-19-era telemedicine policies. A key decision is whether audio-only telemedicine should be covered and if so, whether it should retain parity with video-based telemedicine. The dominance of video over audio in the US suggests that an appropriate policy strategy would be to not reimburse for audio-only telemedicine or reimburse at markedly lower levels. However, US policy makers would be wise to look internationally first—where experience suggests that audio-only can be an effective and more equitable means of delivering primary care.

In the National Health Service (NHS) in England, almost one in three consultations in general practice is audio-only; a figure that has been stable since October 2021. This represents a major rise; pre-pandemic around 10 percent of consults were by phone. Despite efforts from UK policy makers such as fast-tracking funding for online consultation tools, the number of video consults remains stubbornly low, at just 0.4 percent of appointments. This is despite the fact that most NHS primary care practices are video-equipped, and the US and UK populations do not differ significantly in their digital literacy.

What Explains The Higher Levels Of Audio-Only Telemedicine In The UK Versus US?

There is no evidence that directly answers this important question. We therefore leverage circumstantial considerations to develop three possible explanations.

National Policy

Given the active efforts of policy makers at the start of the pandemic to expand availability of telemedicine, an initial explanation is that the countries implemented different policies regarding telemedicine provision—with the US pursuing policies that favored video while the UK pursued policies that favored audio. However, we are not aware of any such policy differences. In both countries, policy makers acted swiftly to make it easier for providers to consult using either modality. National guidance issued to practices in England encouraged use of phone and video encounters “tailored to the person, the circumstance and their needs,” but there was no directive to prioritize audio-only above video consulting. In the US, emergency legislation removed barriers to telemedicine consulting, including giving parity of reimbursement across audio and video encounters (theoretically an incentive to drive up audio-only rates). Both countries reduced regulatory barriers to video consultation, allowing providers to use non-medical video call applications such as Skype and Facetime. But neither country mandated—or strongly incentivized—provision of one telemedicine modality over the other.

Path Dependence

A second explanation is one of path dependence. The idea that faced with the need to act fast and little central planning or coordination, health care delivery organizations disproportionately scaled-up the form of telemedicine that made sense given prior circumstances before the pandemic. In the NHS, the use of audio-only for triage and traditional encounters in general practice was common pre-pandemic. In 2019, 10 percent of encounters in English general practice were by phone, compared to fewer than 1 percent across both telemedicine modalities in the US. The public was also used to receiving health advice by phone—the NHS 111 service is a free phoneline to help people in England access non-emergency medical advice and to link them to local NHS services. Thus, when the pandemic hit, it was easier to act quickly to scale the more familiar modality of audio. In contrast, the US did very little of either modality pre-pandemic, and in an effort to more closely replicate face-to-face care at the start of the pandemic when in-person care was not an option, US practices chose to ramp up video-based telemedicine.

Provider Perceptions Of Quality

While path dependence emphasizes the concept of choice driven by ease, a third potential explanation is that, instead of prior familiarity driving decisions about modality offerings, these decisions were driven by different perceptions of the strengths and limitations of each modality.

In the UK, analysis of why general practitioners hadn’t used video consultations found that despite improvements in functionality and reliability of video consultation tools, practitioners viewed video encounters as logistically more challenging and more cognitively demanding than either face-to-face or telephone consulting. Physicians felt that many presenting problems could be sorted safely by telephone, with in-person assessment required for the remainder. Where problems required visual assessment, physicians preferred a combination of photograph plus telephone consultation (SMS technology is widely embedded in general practice [GP] electronic health records). Consensus from UK physicians seems to be that video provides little benefit over audio-only. Differential uptake of video over audio-consulting suggests that US physicians feel differently; surveys of US physicians have highlighted concerns about the diagnostic accuracy of telephone visits, and their suitability for new patients.

The acceptability of different telemedicine modalities to patients is another dimension of quality that could have driven what health care delivery organizations offered. Evidence from the UK suggests that telephone appointments are a popular appointment modality in general practice. Indeed, analysis of 7.5 million patient-initiated requests for care across 146 primary care providers found that telephone consultation was the most popular patient preference, requested by 55 percent of people seeking care, with fewer than 1 percent of requests seeking a video consult. In the US, one trial reports similar patient satisfaction with audio and video consults, but it is possible that US physicians felt that patients expected video consultations and made efforts to oblige.

Based on circumstantial evidence, we suspect that path dependence and perceptions of quality worked together to push the countries in different directions. While more conclusive evidence is needed, explanation three raises the more critical question of how to move from perceptions of quality differences to robust evidence that can inform choice of modality.

What Is Currently Known About Which Modality Is Better From A Quality Perspective?

The clearest evidence on differences between modalities is about access, where audio-only has clear advantages over video consults in promoting equity. People with the greatest need for health care may be least enabled to access it digitally—termed the “digital inverse care law.” In both the US and the UK, digital exclusion is socially patterned. Older people, those in lower-income groups, people with disabilities, or who do not have English as a first language are more likely to be digitally excluded. In the telemedicine context, video visits require digital literacy and access to technology and broadband/data that are not ubiquitous. On the health system side, providing video visits requires health centers and staff to overcome barriers including cost, training, and technology. These barriers may be more likely to occur in safety-net settings.

In the US, video visits are more common in people earning above $100,000, White people, younger people, and people with private health insurance. In contrast, users of audio-only telemedicine are more likely to be Black people, older adults, and on Medicaid. With telephony already embedded in health centers and 97 percent of Americans owning cell phones, audio-only telemedicine represents an important means of accessing care for underserved populations.

Beyond equitable access, we lack evidence on differences in other dimensions of quality between the two consultation modes, either overall or in specific clinical scenarios. Unfortunately, there is a major obstacle to such evidence generation: In the US, we do not routinely capture the specific telemedicine modality in use and therefore cannot readily compare audio-only to video encounters. Ruth Hailu and colleagues describe the range of interventions—including simplifying coding and adapting electronic health records—required to generate data that would support comparative analysis. However, even with such data available, the choice of modality is non-random, and individuals are likely to receive a blended mix of consultation types during episodes of care. Disentangling the impact of each encounter modality on a range of clinical and patient-reported outcomes would be a substantial research undertaking. Large, diverse population observational studies may be required, alongside a range of qualitative studies of patient and physician experience. Some of this evidence will take years to gather, and decisions on extending coverage beyond the pandemic emergency will likely be required before a full picture is clear. Neither health system can claim an “evidence-based” strategy—and it likely that neither the US nor the NHS has it right yet.

So Where Does This Leave Policy Makers?

In the UK, there is no urgent policy decision to be made around reimbursement, since all forms of telemedicine are covered by the capitated payment system for general practice. Instead, debate has focused on whether access to in-person appointments is now too limited. This is framed by decreasing public satisfaction with access to general practice, in the context of ongoing and severe shortages of primary care physicians. Despite nudges from policy makers, the pandemic has barely shifted the number of video consultations in general practice, and use of telephone consulting has expanded instead. Ongoing studies will monitor outcomes of this change and may require expansion to help the NHS identify an optimal blend of consulting modes. With UK general practitioners unconvinced of quality benefits of video consultations, it is likely that compelling evidence of their benefit would be required for use to increase.

US policy makers face more difficult choices about ongoing reimbursement for audio-only telemedicine. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2022 extends certain telehealth coverages for 151 days after the official end of the federal public health emergency, thus going some way to preventing a “telehealth cliff.” But with the World Health Organization recently discussing for the first time the possibility of ending their emergency declaration on COVID-19, decisions about funding for audio-only and/or video will need to be made relatively soon. In the absence of robust evidence, decisions are likely to hinge on perceptions of the quality of different consultation modes.

Arguments against payment parity between audio-only and video telehealth are likely to focus on early perceptions that audio is a lower-quality modality or prone to overuse. These arguments and their rebuttals have been clearly described already. However, given the clear evidence of the meaningful benefits for reaching underserved people, the US should extend coverage of audio-only telemedicine for a minimum of five years. During this time, perceptions of quality can be informed by empirical evidence, such that we can either phase out audio-only in an equitable way or give providers more flexibility to combine use of modalities.

Even with reimbursement parity, policy makers will need to invest in complementary enablers of equitable telemedicine access through state-level action. As Elaine Khoong writes, avoiding a two-tier system where video encounters are disproportionately available to the wealthy requires policy makers to expand video-visit capacity in the safety net, alongside community-based strategies to improve digital literacy. Given that telehealth does not necessitate the same geographical constraints as in-person care—for example, with respect to physician licensing or online prescribing—amending policies to streamline provision across states is also vital.

A Role For Payment Reform?

The past two years have shown that telephone and video consultation can be combined to deliver high-quality and efficient care. Going forward, patients are likely to receive a blended mix of appointments across modalities, tailored to clinical need and individual circumstance. In the NHS, capitated payments give clinicians and managers the flexibility to offer a mix of appointment modalities, based on the clinical situation without the need to consider differential reimbursement or administrative burden. In fee-for-service models, differentiating payment levels across telemedicine modalities is likely to increase bureaucracy and risks decreasing efficiency and quality. In the longer run, experience from both systems suggests that we should move away from modality-based reimbursement.

In recent testimony to the US Senate’s Committee on Finance, Robert Berenson suggested that fee-for-service is a particularly flawed payment model for telemedicine, and that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services should consider paying for telehealth services in a similar model to the UK: via monthly capitated payments for primary care physicians as part of a hybrid payment model. Capitated payment systems enable physicians to use the encounter modality considered most appropriate for the situation without worrying about how they will be paid (or the patient billed). Berenson’s proposal would allow physicians and patients to tailor the type of telemedicine encounter more precisely to individual patient need and might reduce bureaucracy associated with billing, in turn increasing efficiency. As evidence on the benefits and risks of each modality emerges, such a payment model also allows rapid translation of evidence into practice.

Authors’ Note

Professor Sarkar holds current research funding from the National Cancer Institute, California Healthcare Foundation, the Food and Drug Administration, HopeLab, and the Commonwealth Fund. She has received prior grant funding from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Blue Shield of California Foundation, and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. She received gift funding from The Doctors Company Foundation. She holds contract funding from AppliedVR, InquisitHealth, Somnology, and RecoverX. Professor Sarkar serves as a scientific/expert adviser for nonprofit organizations HealthTech 4 Medicaid (volunteer) and for HopeLab (volunteer). She is a member of the American Medical Association’s Equity and Innovation Advisory Group (honoraria). She is an adviser for Waymark (shares) and for Ceteri Capital I GP, LLC (shares). She has been a clinical adviser for Omada Health (honoraria), and an advisory board member for Doximity (honoraria).

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