Telemedicine Visits for Headache Yield High Patient Satisfaction

Tara Haelle

June 09, 2021

Patients overwhelmingly found telemedicine care for headache a satisfactory and beneficial experience during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study presented at the American Headache Society's 2021 annual meeting. Most patients who used telemedicine said they would like to continue using it after the pandemic, though the study also revealed barriers to care for a small percentage of respondents.

"Telemedicine minimizes the physical and geographic barriers to health care, preserves personal protective equipment, and prevents the spread of COVID-19 by allowing encounters to happen in a socially distanced way," said Chia-Chun Chiang, MD, assistant professor of neurology at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. "Telemedicine provides patients with opportunities to gain better control of their headache disorders while not having to commit to the time to travel and risk of exposure to COVID-19." If insurance coverage for virtual care were rolled back, "patients and multiple levels of health care providers would be significantly affected," she said.

The research relied on findings from a 15-question survey distributed by the nonprofit American Migraine Foundation through email and social media to more than 100,000 people. Among the 1,172 patients who responded to the survey, 1,098 had complete responses, and 86.6% were female.

The vast majority of these patients (93.8%) had had a previous diagnosis of a headache. Just over half (57.5%) said they used telemedicine during the study period, with most of those visits (85.5%) being follow-up care and 14.5% involving a new patient visit.

Among those who did not use telemedicine, most (56.1%) said they didn't need a visit. However, a quarter of these respondents (25.2%) said they didn't know telemedicine was an option, and 12.9% said they would have preferred telemedicine but it wasn't offered by their doctors. A smaller proportion (3.5%) said they wanted to use virtual care but that their insurance did not cover it, and nearly as many (2.2%) said they wanted telemedicine but didn't have the technology needed to use it.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted that reliable Internet service has contributed to disparities in access in many ways, including health care via telemedicine," Chiang said. "Those who are not able to afford Internet, lack proficiency in the use of technology, or have cognitive impairment might not be able to utilize telemedicine."

Among those who did receive telemedicine care for headache, about a third (34.4%) received care from a general neurologist while 43.7% saw a headache specialist and nearly a third (30.7%) saw a primary care provider. The remaining visits included 11.3% who saw headache nurse practitioners and 3.2% who saw headache nurses.

Most patients did not have a new or changed diagnosis at their visit; only 7.4% received a new headache diagnosis during their telemedicine appointment. Though 43.7% had no change to their therapy, a little more than half of patients (52.4%) received a new treatment, a finding that caught the interest of Alan M. Rapoport, MD, clinical professor of neurology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and past president of the International Headache Society.

"The techniques used [in virtual visits] were good enough for the caregiver to make critical decisions about how the patient was doing and what new treatment might be better for them," said Rapoport, who was not involved in the research. "I believe that most headache specialists will gradually resume in office visits," he said, but "this study shows it would be okay for some or most of the revisits to continue to be done virtually."

The vast majority of patients rated their care as "very good" (62.1%) or "good" (20.7%). Less satisfied responses included 10.5% who felt their experience was "fair," 3.6% who said it was "poor," and 3.1% who gave other responses.

These results fit with the experience of Rapoport and of Paul B. Rizzoli, MD, associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and clinical director of the John R. Graham Headache Center at Brigham and Women's Faulkner Hospital, both in Boston.

"Telemedicine worked better than we anticipated," said Rizzoli when asked for comment. "I was especially surprised how comfortable I became with its use for many, but not all, new patients. While I don't expect it to replace in-person visits, I do expect that it will and should be a permanent part of our care going forward, especially for follow-up visits."

The findings supported that expectation as well: An overwhelming majority of those who responded to the survey (89.8%) also said they would like to keep receiving telemedicine care for their headache care and treatment. This percentage was split evenly between those who said they would like to always receive care virtually and those who would only want to use it for some appointments. A smaller proportion said they did not want to keep using virtual care (7.1%) or weren't sure (3.1%).

"Telemedicine has become an essential tool for patients and a wide variety of clinicians," Chiang reported during her presentation. "Telemedicine facilitated headache care for many patients during the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in high patient satisfaction rates and a desire to continue to utilize telemedicine for future headache care for those who responded to the online survey."

Rapoport noted that a particular benefit of telemedicine in his practice is avoiding transportation issues.

"In Santa Monica and Los Angeles, my patients coming from 10 or more miles away usually have to contend with difficult traffic, which created stress and often made them late and upset the office schedule," Rapoport said. "I found that virtual visits were almost always shorter, on time, and were as effective for the patient as an in-person visit."

Chiang drew attention, however, to the barriers to care found in the study, including not having or knowing of telemedicine as an option, and not having access to the technology or insurance coverage needed to take advantage of it. She listed three ways to address those challenges and increase health care accessibility to patients:

  • Expand insurance coverage to reimburse telemedicine even after the pandemic.

  • Widely promote and broadcast the use of virtual care.

  • Make Internet access a priority as a necessity in society and expand access.

Rizzoli also noted some ways to improve telemedicine. "We could easily develop improved means of delivering vital signs and other bio-information over telemedicine to improve decision-making," he said. "A difficult task going forward will be to fix legal questions associated with virtual visits across state lines which, especially in the small New England states, come up frequently and are currently illegal."

Rapoport noted ways that patients can facilitate effective telemedicine visits. "Doctors should insist that patients keep careful records of their headaches, triggers, medicines, etc., either on paper or preferably via an app on their smartphones, which is usually always accessible," Rapoport said. "With good data and a good electronic connection, the visit should go well."

Among the study's limitations were a comparatively small response rate (1.11% of those invited to participate) and ascertainment bias.

"The take-home message from the experience is that this turns out to be an effective, efficient and accepted means of delivering care that should be developed further," Rizzoli said.

No external funding was noted. Chiang and Rizzoli had no disclosures. Rapoport has advised AbbVie, Amgen, Biohaven, Cala Health, Satsuma, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, Theranica, Xoc and Zosano, and is on the speakers bureau of AbbVie, Amgen, Biohaven, Lundbeck and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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