Growth of Ambulatory Virtual Visits and Differential Use by Patient Sociodemographics at One Urban Academic Medical Center During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Retrospective Analysis

JMIR Med Inform. 2020 Dec 4;8(12):e24544. doi: 10.2196/24544.


Background: Despite widespread interest in the use of virtual (ie, telephone and video) visits for ambulatory patient care during the COVID-19 pandemic, studies examining their adoption during the pandemic by race, sex, age, or insurance are lacking. Moreover, there have been limited evaluations to date of the impact of these sociodemographic factors on the use of telephone versus video visits. Such assessments are crucial to identify, understand, and address differences in care delivery across patient populations, particularly those that could affect access to or quality of care.

Objective: The aim of this study was to examine changes in ambulatory visit volume and type (ie, in-person vs virtual and telephone vs video visits) by patient sociodemographics during the COVID-19 pandemic at one urban academic medical center.

Methods: We compared volumes and patient sociodemographics (age, sex, race, insurance) for visits during the first 11 weeks following the COVID-19 national emergency declaration (March 15 to May 31, 2020) to visits in the corresponding weeks in 2019. Additionally, for visits during the COVID-19 study period, we examined differences in visit type (ie, in-person versus virtual, and telephone versus video visits) by sociodemographics using multivariate logistic regression.

Results: Total visit volumes in the COVID-19 study period comprised 51.4% of the corresponding weeks in 2019 (n=80,081 vs n=155,884 visits). Although patient sociodemographics between the COVID-19 study period in 2020 and the corresponding weeks in 2019 were similar, 60.5% (n=48,475) of the visits were virtual, compared to 0% in 2019. Of the virtual visits, 61.2% (n=29,661) were video based, and 38.8% (n=18,814) were telephone based. In the COVID-19 study period, virtual (vs in-person) visits were more likely among patients with race categorized as other (vs White) and patients with Medicare (vs commercial) insurance and less likely for men, patients aged 0-17 years, 65-74 years, or ≥75 years (compared to patients aged 18-45 years), and patients with Medicaid insurance or insurance categorized as other. Among virtual visits, compared to telephone visits, video visits were more likely to be adopted by patients aged 0-17 years (vs 18-45 years), but less likely for all other age groups, men, Black (vs White) patients, and patients with Medicare or Medicaid (vs commercial) insurance.

Conclusions: Virtual visits comprised the majority of ambulatory visits during the COVID-19 study period, of which a majority were by video. Sociodemographic differences existed in the use of virtual versus in-person and video versus telephone visits. To ensure equitable care delivery, we present five policy recommendations to inform the further development of virtual visit programs and their reimbursement.

Keywords: COVID-19; age; demographic; insurance; race; retrospective; sex; telehealth; telemedicine; telephone visit; video visit; virtual visit.