More than one-third of privately insured health plan members in the U.S. accessed telehealth services in 2020, up from just 9% a year ago. The increased use of telemedicine and other digital tools and services is correlated with a jump in overall member satisfaction, a study from J.D. Power shows.

The numbers, contained in the J.D. Power 2021 U.S. Commercial Member Health Plan Study, can’t prove the increase in telehealth caused by the pandemic has a causal relationship to improved member satisfaction. But James Beem, managing director for global health care intelligence at the firm, tells AIS Health the study shows “that health plans are becoming more customer-driven and that they came through for member responses” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are only stating that digital contact and telehealth adoption increased since last year,” Beem says. “However, greater engagement among health plan members generally ties to an increase in satisfaction. Digital channels — website, app, text — are less utilized than phone, but associated with higher satisfaction regardless of” member age.

The survey found that telehealth utilization increased by 27% in 2020, with 36% of U.S. health plan members saying they had accessed services. Digital contact with insurers also increased, with 32% of members saying they connected with their health plans via web, mobile app or text message in the last year.

Overall satisfaction improved 10 points year over year on a 1,000-point scale, up from a 6-point increase in 2020, the study found. According to J.D. Power, the rise in satisfaction was driven largely by health plans scoring significantly higher in the categories of cost, information and communication.

Ashraf Shehata, national sector leader for health care and life sciences at KPMG, says that he’s seen similar trends across the industry on client satisfaction and access during the pandemic.

Virtual care has improved engagement with younger members during the pandemic, which could have significant second-order effects, Shehata explains: “I think the more that health plans can engage the younger individuals in their membership to actually use the resources other than sick care, I think we’re going to see a really positive influence.”

Benefit design is key in engaging members in both the younger and older populations and directing them toward the correct digital channel, particularly in cohorts with higher utilization, Shehata says.

by Jane Anderson