Background: As the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is widely spreading across the United States, there is a concern about the overloading of the nation's health care capacity. The expansion of telehealth services is expected to deliver timely care for the initial screening of symptomatic patients while minimizing exposure in health care facilities, to protect health care providers and other patients. However, it is currently unknown whether US hospitals have the telehealth capacity to meet the increasing demand and needs of patients during this pandemic.
Objective: We investigated the population-level internet search volume for telehealth (as a proxy of population interest and demand) with the number of new COVID-19 cases and the proportion of hospitals that adopted a telehealth system in all US states.
Methods: We used internet search volume data from Google Trends to measure population-level interest in telehealth and telemedicine between January 21, 2020 (when the first COVID-19 case was reported), and March 18, 2020. Data on COVID-19 cases in the United States were obtained from the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resources Center. We also used data from the 2018 American Hospital Association Annual Survey to estimate the proportion of hospitals that adopted telehealth (including telemedicine and electronic visits) and those with the capability of telemedicine intensive care unit (tele-ICU). Pearson correlation was used to examine the relations of population search volume for telehealth and telemedicine (composite score) with the cumulative numbers of COVID-19 cases in the United States during the study period and the proportion of hospitals with telehealth and tele-ICU capabilities.
Results: We found that US population-level interest in telehealth increased as the number of COVID-19 cases increased, with a strong correlation (r=0.948, P<.001). We observed a higher population-level interest in telehealth in the Northeast and West census region, whereas the proportion of hospitals that adopted telehealth was higher in the Midwest region. There was no significant association between population interest and the proportion of hospitals that adopted telehealth (r=0.055, P=.70) nor hospitals having tele-ICU capability (r=-0.073, P=.61).
Conclusions: As the number of COVID-19 cases increases, so does the US population's interest in telehealth. However, the level of population interest did not correlate with the proportion of hospitals providing telehealth services in the United States, suggesting that increased population demand may not be met with the current telehealth capacity. Telecommunication infrastructures in US hospitals may lack the capability to address the ongoing health care needs of patients with other health conditions. More practical investment is needed to deploy the telehealth system rapidly against the impending patient surge.
Keywords: COVID-19; infectious disease; outbreak; pandemic; public health; screening; telehealth; telemedicine.
©Young-Rock Hong, John Lawrence, Dunc Williams Jr, Arch Mainous III. Originally published in JMIR Public Health and Surveillance (http://publichealth.jmir.org), 07.04.2020.