Pediatric Telemedicine Gains Traction During Pandemic

By John Commins

A new survey of parents suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic has made telehealth an acceptable alternative for many pediatric care visits.

One in five parents responding in a just-released C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health say their child had a virtual health visit over the past year for either check-ups, minor illnesses, mental health or a follow up – a marked increase in remote care for children.

While many of the more than 2,000 parents nationally who responded to the survey still have reservations about pediatric telemedicine, most said they were satisfied with their experience.

“COVID has had a major impact on the delivery of healthcare for children, both for routine check-ups and visits for illnesses,” says Mott Poll co-director Gary L. Freed, M.D. a pediatrician at Mott.

“We’ve seen a massive expansion of virtual care,” Freed says, “but this experience is especially new to parents who primarily relied on in-person pediatric visits. Our poll looked at how parents have experienced this evolution in children’s health.”

The survey suggests that the transition to virtual care was facilitated by the “new normal” that the pandemic created, with children attending school remotely and communicating with family and friends on Zoom.

Another factor was that parents often had no recourse but to use virtual care during the pandemic. About half of respondents said they weren’t given an “in-person” option because of fears of contagion.

For the one in three parents who chose virtual care, however, reducing exposure was the primary reason, and another third of parents chose telehealth for convenience. These virtual physician visits were a first for many parents, but 90% said they were satisfied with the visit.

“For busy parents, a virtual visit reduces the burden of travel time to the appointment and minimizes time away from work or school,” Freed says.

The survey also found that pediatric telemedicine still faces barriers to adoption, such as technological issues, which the Mott researchers said was a more common concern among lower-income parents.

“Moving forward we want to make sure gaps in technology don’t exacerbate disparities in care,” Freed says. “Providers should provide clear directions and technical support for families who use virtual visits.”

“Systems and policies that provide access to necessary and reliable technology will be essential to preventing inequity in availability and use of virtual care,” he said.

Parents said their biggest concern about virtual visits are than pediatricians might not be as thorough as they would be during an in-person visit.

About half of parents would be OK with a virtual visit for mental health or a minor illness.  However, 77% of parents preferred in-person visits for check-ups, with only 23% being comfortable with a virtual check-up. Those findings were virtually identical for in-person versus virtual visits with pediatric specialists.

Freed recommends that parents who are new to telehealth experiment with minor care issues to “gauge whether they feel that the provider can understand the child’s symptoms or condition and are comfortable asking questions in the virtual format.”

“We expect remote visits to continue to expand for pediatric patients long after the pandemic,” he says.

John Commins is a content specialist and online news editor for HealthLeaders, a Simplify Compliance brand.