According to a recent study, telehealth visits increased at community health centers during the COVID-19 pandemic, accounting for 21% of all visits in 2021 as opposed to fewer than 1% in 2019. The research, which was made public by the Kaiser Family Foundation last month, describes changes in the number of visits to community health centers and the services they provide from 2019 to 2021. Data from the Uniform Data System, to which all community health centers are required to submit annual reports, was examined by researchers. According to the research, community health clinics are safety-net primary care providers for low-income and medically underserved communities. They have been crucial in the COVID-19 public health emergency, providing vulnerable populations with a range of services like immunizations. As a result of more people using telehealth, community health center visits decreased in 2020 but increased in 2021. In 2019, there were 122.8 million visits to community health centers, of which roughly 478,000 (less than 1%) were virtual visits. In 2020, there were 114.2 million fewer visits overall, while there were 28.5 million more telehealth visits. In 2021, there were 124.2 million visits to community health centers overall, 26.1 million (21%) of which were telehealth visits. The introduction of telehealth appears to have benefited community health centers’ medical and mental health services the most. Conversely, visit volumes decreased for other services like dental and vision care that found it difficult to transition to the virtual world.
Total visits for medical services varied from 81.3 million to 83.4 million from 2019 to 2021, with a minor decline to 78.2 million in 2020. In 2020 and 2021, telehealth utilization increased the number of visits, accounting for 18.5 million and 15.2 million, respectively, up from around 130,000 in 2019.
From 20.6 million in 2019 to 22.9 million in 2020, there were a total of 22.9 million visits for integrated mental health care. In 2021, it increased even more to 24.5 million. About 279,000 virtual consultations for mental health were made in 2019, but those numbers increased to 9.7 million in 2020 and 10.1 million in 2021. In a similar vein, the total number of visits for integrated substance use disorder services between 2019 and 2021 ranged from 6.6 million to 6.7 million, remaining largely constant. However, the number of telehealth visits increased, going from about 34,000 in 2019 to about 2 million in 2020 and 2021. In contrast, visits for dental and eye services that were largely in-person were 20% and 9%, respectively, below the pre-pandemic baseline in 2021. The usage of telehealth at community health centers significantly increased in 2017. The Department of Health and Human Services announced plans to give several community health centers $55 million in new funding in February 2022 to boost the adoption and utilization of virtual care resources. The money was specifically given to 29 health centers supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration to enhance telehealth, remote patient monitoring, and other technologically enabled services.