Racial disparity in follow-up appointments disappears with telemedicine

An inequity in the rate of Black patients making it to their primary care appointment after a hospitalization was eliminated after telemedicine became widely used amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Telemedicine appears to be a key to reducing racial inequities in follow-up care after hospitalization, according to numbers collected amid the pandemic by researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine. As 2020 progressed and telemedicine became one of the main modes for primary care visits, attendance or “show” rates at follow-up appointments after hospitalization climbed among Black patients from 52 to 70%. This was comparable to white patients, whose visit completion rates at primary care follow-up appointments were 67% by the middle of 2020. The research is published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

A patient having a telemedicine appointment with a doctor via a desktop computer screen.

“While there remain important open questions about the relative quality of different kinds of telemedicine appointments, our findings show reduced time to follow-up and improved appointment show rates, which is certainly encouraging,” says the study’s lead author, Eric Bressman, a fellow in the National Clinician Scholars Program and an internist at Penn. “But the sharp narrowing of racial disparities in visit completion rates was a surprise, in part because there is so much mixed information on telemedicine's impact on disparities in access to care.”

The sudden onset of COVID-19 resulted in a telemedicine boom as health care offices sought to slow the virus by limiting in-person visits. Amid this, Bressman and his fellow researchers—including the study’s senior author, Srinath Adusumalli, an assistant professor of clinical medicine in cardiology and assistant chief medical information officer of Connected Health Strategy and Applications—looked at whether telemedicine improved access in the critical recovery period following a hospitalization.

The boost the researchers documented effectively eliminated the historical racial gap in show rates to follow-up appointments. Bressman expressed that more research would be needed to show exactly why the gains occurred, but he has some potential ideas.

“We do have data from here in Philadelphia that there are racial inequities in geographic access to primary care providers,” Bressman says. “That is one factor among many that may influence whether a patient is able make it to a scheduled appointment. It is also one of the ways in which telemedicine might level the playing field in terms of accessing primary care services.”

This story is by Frank Otto. Read more at Penn Medicine News.