When the pandemic rolled out across the world in early 2020, a lot of nursing communities turned to telemedicine. A new report shares just how much those communities leaned on telehealth services at the height of the pandemic, as well as before it and as restrictions were lifted.

A study that appeared in JAMA Network Open on Aug. 18 looked at more than 4.4 million residents at 15,434 skilled nursing facilities in the US. Telemedicine visits, or seeing a doctor virtually, rose from 0.15% before the pandemic to 15% for routine visits in early 2020. (Routine visits are regularly required when a person is staying in a long-term care community.) Overall, 37% of residents at long-term care communities used telehealth to see healthcare professionals outside of the community that year. By the middle of 2021, the use of telehealth declined to 2% for routine visits and 10% of outpatient visits. 

The percentage of skilled nursing facilities using telemedicine visits each year decreased from 91% in 2020 to 61% in 2022. Rural settings used telemedicine more. Using telemedicine was linked to better access to psychiatry visits.

“Telemedicine was rapidly adopted in early 2020 but subsequently stabilized at a low use rate that was nonetheless higher than before 2020,” the authors wrote.

“Although the overall trend of telemedicine use was similar for short- and long-term care residents, the proportion of telemedicine visits was slightly higher for long-term care residents,” they added.

To gauge the shifts in formats of care used as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the researchers used data from Medicare reports spanning 2018 to 2022. People who didn’t have full coverage with traditional Medicare Part A or Part B at any point during their stay at the long-term care community weren’t included.

Telemedicine use grew, but so did the areas using it. For example, just three Midwestern states used telemedicine for more than 1% of routine visits in 2019. In 2020, all states used telemedicine for more than 1% of the visits, and 20 states used the technology for more than 10% of routine visits. By the first half of 2022, there was only one state that turned to telehealth for more than 10% of routine visits, and eight states went back to using it for less than 1% of routine visits.