Blue Cross Sees Hundredfold Increase In Telehealth Visits During Pandemic

In the past six weeks, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts recorded more than half a million telehealth visits with patients. Before COVID-19, the average number of telehealth visits over a six-week period was 5,000.

That shift to virtual medical treatment during the coronavirus pandemic will likely create permanent changes to health care deliveryaccording to the insurer.

Blue Cross Medical Director Ken Duckworth said most of the telehealth visits by subscribers over the past six weeks have been for behavioral health.

"The mental health field has never been accused of being fast-moving, and this is the quickest pivot I've ever seen," Duckworth said. "Virtually all care is delivered through tele therapy and more than half of our visits are mental health and addiction related."

To respond to the demand, the insurer started emergency credentialing providers so they can work in the Blue Cross network within 72 hours, Duckworth said. About 400 new providers have been emergency credentialed to meet demand.

"We were tossed into the deep end of the pool on telehealth," Duckworth said. "It was a side road that virtually no one used in the past and now it's a 16-million-lane superhighway in every direction."

While some patients and providers may prefer in-person visits, Duckworth said both groups have called it a positive experience overall. Many providers report that patients are more reliably showing up for therapy, and more patients seem to be getting comfortable with virtual therapy, he said.

"I think a subset of care will be delivered this way going forward, even after the crisis ends," Duckworth said. "Some people are realizing that paying for parking and driving to a therapist's office has its own downsides."


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Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



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