Capacity of Primary Care to Deliver Telehealth in the United States

J Am Board Fam Med. 2021 Feb;34(Suppl):S48-S54. doi: 10.3122/jabfm.2021.S1.200202.


Background: Because of the Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID 19) pandemic, many primary care practices have transitioned to telehealth visits to keep patients at home and decrease the transmission of the disease. Yet, little is known about the nationwide capacity for delivering primary care services via telehealth.

Methods: Using the 2016 National Ambulatory Medical Survey we estimated the number and proportion of reported visits and services that could be provided via telehealth. We also performed cross-tabulations to calculate the number and proportion of physicians providing telephone visits and e-mail/internet encounters.

Results: Of the total visits (nearly 400 million) to primary care physicians, 42% were amenable to telehealth and 73% of the total services rendered could be delivered through telehealth modalities. Of the primary care physicians, 44% provided telephone consults and 19% provided e-consults.

Discussion: This study underscores how and where primary care services could be delivered. It provides the first estimates of the capacity of primary care to provide telehealth services for COVID-19 related illness, and for several other acute and chronic medical conditions. It also highlights the fact that, as of 2016, most outpatient telehealth visits were done via telephone.

Conclusions: This study provides an estimate of the primary care capacity to deliver telehealth and can guide practices and payers as care delivery models change in a post-COVID 19 environment.

Keywords: COVID-19; Child Health; Family Medicine; Mental Health; Pandemics; Primary Care Physicians; Primary Health Care; Rural Health; Social Determinants of Health; Telemedicine.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • COVID-19 / epidemiology
  • Capacity Building*
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Databases, Factual
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pandemics
  • Primary Health Care / statistics & numerical data*
  • Primary Health Care / trends
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Telemedicine / statistics & numerical data*
  • Telemedicine / trends
  • United States / epidemiology
  • Young Adult