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How Do Virtual Visits Compare to In-Person Doctor Visits?

A study from Kaiser Permanente shows that virtual visits were nearly as good as in-person office visits for addressing patients' problems.

One of the consequences of the pandemic was the adoption of virtual visits for primary health care. The rationale was to avoid transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to otherwise healthy people. Like the rest of the world, healthcare providers worked remotely when that was feasible.

What Is the Impact of Virtual Visits?

People have differing reactions to seeing their doctors in a Zoom-like setting. Some appreciate the fact that they did not need to travel for an office visit. Others find electronic interactions off-putting, especially if they have trouble with their internet connection. How do virtual visits stack up against in-person care? A new study shows that telemedicine visits are just as good as in-person office visits for most primary care problems (Annals of Internal Medicine, Oct. 2023).

The study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, was based on analysis of records from more than 1.5 million patients of Kaiser Permanente in 2021. Roughly half of the interactions between patients and providers were in person. The others were split between video and telephone visits.

Most Visits Went Well:

The investigators found that rates of follow-up emergency department visits and hospitalization was low for all visits. There were a few more follow-up office visits within a week of telephone (7.6%) or video visits (6.2%). Such follow-up visits were most likely if the initial visit was for a condition that caused pain. The investigators could not evaluate symptom severity from the records.

In addition, video and telephone visits resulted in slightly fewer prescriptions of medication. According to the records, 47% of patients received prescriptions during in-person visits. That compares to 35% of telephone visits and 38% of video visits resulting in prescriptions. Overall, however, the differences between these types of patient-provider interactions were minimal.

The Pandemic Accelerated Telemedicine:

The trend toward electronic connections between patients and their healthcare providers was already underway. Back in 2019, a study published in JAMA explored the pros and cons of direct-to-consumer telemedicine for prescriptions. The prescriptions included drugs for erectile dysfunction or genital herpes. The current study stands in contrast to that, as the providers patients saw (virtually or in-person) were part of their usual care team.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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