The multiple uses of telemedicine during the pandemic: the evidence from a cross-sectional survey of medical doctors in Brazil

Global Health. 2022 Sep 19;18(1):81. doi: 10.1186/s12992-022-00875-9.


Background: The use of telemedicine, or the provision of healthcare and communication services through distance-based technologies, has increased substantially since the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. However, it is still unclear what are the innovative features of the widespread use of such modality, its forms of employment and the context in which it is used across pluralist health systems, particularly in low- and middle-income settings. We have sought to provide empirical evidence on the above issues by analysing the responses of medical doctors in a representative cross-sectional survey in two states in Brazil: São Paulo and Maranhão.

Methods: We analysed the responses of 1,183 physicians to a survey on the impact of COVID-19 on their livelihood and working practice. Two independent samples per state were calculated based on a total of 152,511 active medical registries in São Paulo and Maranhão. Proportional stratified sampling was performed and the distributions for gender, age, state and location of address (capital or countryside) were preserved. The survey contained questions on the frequency of physicians' employment of telemedicine services; the specific activities where these were employed, and; the forms in which the pandemic had influenced the adoption or consolidation of this technology. We performed descriptive and univariate analysis based on the chi-square test or Fisher's exact test for the qualitative data, and the Mann-Whitney test in the quantitative cases. Data were shown as absolute frequency and proportion with a 95% confidence interval.

Results: In our sample of physicians, telemedicine was employed as a form of clinical collaboration by most doctors (76.0%, 95 CI 73.6-78.5), but only less than a third of them (30.6%, 95 CI 28.0-33.3) used it as a modality to provide healthcare services. During the pandemic, telemedicine was used predominantly in COVID-19-related areas, particularly for hospital-based in-patient services, and in private clinics and ambulatory settings. Male, younger doctors used it the most. Doctors in São Paulo employed telemedicine more frequently than in Maranhão (p < 0.001), in urban settings more than in rural areas (p < 0.001). Approximately three-quarters of doctors in large hospitals reported using telemedicine services (78.3%, 95 CI 75.9-80.6), followed by doctors working for smaller private clinics (66.4%, 95 CI 63.7-69.1), and by a smaller proportion of primary care doctors (58.4%, 95 CI 55.6-61.2).

Conclusions: Our study suggests that telemedicine may have helped ensure and expand the range of communication and healthcare services in low- and middle-income settings during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the modality appears to lend itself to be disproportionally used by doctors working in specific, priviledged sections of pluralistic health systems, and presumably by patients seeking care there. Regulation and incentives will be required to support the use of the technology across health systems in low- and middle-income countries in order to increase access to services for less disadvantaged populations.

Keywords: Doctors and physicians; Health in low- and middle-income countries; Health systems; Medical services; Telehealth; Telemedicine.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Brazil / epidemiology
  • COVID-19* / epidemiology
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pandemics
  • Physicians*
  • Telemedicine*