Use of Telehealth by Surgical Specialties During the COVID-19 Pandemic

JAMA Surg. 2021 Jul 1;156(7):620-626. doi: 10.1001/jamasurg.2021.0979.


Importance: While telehealth use in surgery has shown to be feasible, telehealth became a major modality of health care delivery during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Objective: To assess patterns of telehealth use across surgical specialties before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Design, setting, and participants: Insurance claims from a Michigan statewide commercial payer for new patient visits with a surgeon from 1 of 9 surgical specialties during one of the following periods: prior to the COVID-19 pandemic (period 1: January 5 to March 7, 2020), early pandemic (period 2: March 8 to June 6, 2020), and late pandemic (period 3: June 7 to September 5, 2020).

Exposures: Telehealth implementation owing to the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.

Main outcomes and measures: (1) Conversion rate defined as the rate of weekly new patient telehealth visits divided by mean weekly number of total new patient visits in 2019. This outcome adjusts for a substantial decrease in outpatient care during the pandemic. (2) Weekly number of new patient telehealth visits divided by weekly number of total new patient visits.

Results: Among 4405 surgeons in the cohort, 2588 (58.8%) performed telehealth in any patient care context. Specifically for new patient visits, 1182 surgeons (26.8%) used telehealth. A total of 109 610 surgical new outpatient visits were identified during the pandemic. The median (interquartile range) age of telehealth patients was 46.8 (34.1-58.4) years compared with 52.6 (38.3-62.3) years for patients who received care in-person. Prior to March 2020, less than 1% (8 of 173 939) of new patient visits were conducted through telehealth. Telehealth use peaked in April 2020 (week 14) and facilitated 34.6% (479 of 1383) of all new patient visits during that week. The telehealth conversion rate peaked in April 2020 (week 15) and was equal to 8.2% of the 2019 mean weekly new patient visit volume. During period 2, a mean (SD) of 16.6% (12.0%) of all new patient surgical visits were conducted via telehealth (conversion rate of 5.1% of 2019 mean weekly new patient visit volumes). During period 3, 3.0% (2168 of 71 819) of all new patient surgical visits were conducted via telehealth (conversion rate of 2.5% of 2019 new patient visit volumes). Mean (SD) telehealth conversion rates varied by specialty with urology being the highest (14.3% [7.7%]).

Conclusions and relevance: Results from this study showed that telehealth use grew across all surgical specialties in Michigan in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While rates of telehealth use have declined as in-person care has resumed, telehealth use remains substantially higher across all surgical specialties than it was prior to the pandemic.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19 / epidemiology*
  • Cohort Studies
  • Humans
  • Michigan / epidemiology
  • Pandemics
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians' / statistics & numerical data*
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Specialties, Surgical*
  • Telemedicine / statistics & numerical data*