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Telehealth has been vital during COVID, but most people still prefer in-person care

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Telehealth had a breakout year last year, transforming the way we receive routine medical care during the pandemic. It became vital to accessing health care. Yet today, many of us prefer to see our doctors and nurses in person. That's a finding from a poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports on what that might mean about telemedicine's role in the future.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Charlie Freyre's sinuses had been bothering him for weeks. This was during another COVID surge last winter when vaccines weren't yet widely available.

CHARLIE FREYRE: I was just trying to stay in my apartment as much as possible, and also it just seemed like a more convenient option. So - and, you know, it was very straightforward and very easy.

NOGUCHI: The $20 co-pay was worth it for the 26-year-old ad salesman. His girlfriend also routinely relies on telehealth to see her nutritionist.

FREYRE: It's a very easy way to get, like, an expert opinion without having to, like, necessarily leave your apartment and fill out, like, the form when you get in the waiting room, and then you always have to wait for 45 minutes and, like, you know, it's just - we all know what going to the doctor can be like.

NOGUCHI: Now he has a sore knee. But this time, Freyre doesn't want to use his phone or Zoom.

FREYRE: Like, that's something that I will 100% want handled in person.

REBEKAH BERNARD: It turns out that I think people just really like that face-to-face visit.

NOGUCHI: Rebekah Bernard is a family physician in Fort Myers, Fla., and a board member for Physicians for Patient Protection, which advocates for patient care. She says even before the pandemic, she offered a telehealth option, though not a single patient used it. During the pandemic, patients told her having it allayed their worries about accessing care.

BERNARD: What if I need her if I'm sick? Or what if I'm in a situation where I can't get in?

NOGUCHI: Indeed, the poll conducted in August and September by NPR shows 42% of households used telehealth in recent months. And a large majority, 82%, reported satisfaction. Yet most, nearly two-thirds, still said they would have preferred seeing their doctor in person. What telehealth's role will be in the future of medicine is a big question. It exploded at the start of the pandemic as federal and state governments and insurance companies all adopted emergency measures. They relaxed restrictions on privacy controls and professional licensing, for example. Now some of those rules are coming back. And Florida doctor Bernard says the last year has shown telehealth has its downsides.

BERNARD: You may be missing that opportunity to be talking with the doctor who's going to say, hey, by the way, I see you haven't had your mammogram or you haven't had your CAT.

NOGUCHI: So both she and most patients prefer in-person visits.

BERNARD: They really appreciate, I think, the relationship between their physician and themselves. And there's just something that they gain, and I think the physician gains as well, about sitting down together.

NOGUCHI: But when that isn't available, she says, telehealth can be critical.

BERNARD: Really, what's going to be important is offering patients options and finding out what just makes the most sense in a certain area. I'm sure in rural areas or places where, for example, they don't have a lot of specialists like psychiatrists, we really need to make sure we have access to telehealth for those patients.

NOGUCHI: David Bardan agrees. He's a vice president at TytoCare. As part of their telehealth service, they distribute devices that can measure patient's oxygen levels or take images of the inside of their throat. That data is then transmitted to doctors who use it to diagnose problems remotely. Bardan says many nursing homes, for example, are in rural areas and are heavy users of the service.

DAVID BARDAN: And this is way more convenient than having to potentially air transport or even have to drive long distances in many cases to actually access those specialists.

NOGUCHI: And that's the kind of benefit of telehealth, he says, that will endure. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIOHEAD SONG, "WEIRD FISHES/ARPEGGI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.