Between 2019 and 2022, MDH found that telehealth use among most categories of health care providers grew. Among Minnesota’s physicians, for example, 64% report using telehealth at least some of the time in 2022, compared to 32% in 2019. Mental health providers saw the biggest jump in telehealth use, with 80% of those providers using telehealth some of the time versus 21% in 2019.
But that uptick isn’t evenly distributed between rural and urban patients. Per MDH’s 2021 Minnesota Health Access Survey, rural Minnesotans were less likely to use video or telephone visits than urban residents.
“It’s really hard to characterize the penetration of telehealth, but by almost every measure … people in urban areas used more telehealth during the pandemic and continue to this day to use more telehealth than folks who live in rural areas,” said Jonathan Neufeld, director of the Great Plains Telehealth Resource and Assistance Center, based at the University of Minnesota.
The answer, according to Neufeld, is nuanced. A mix of post-pandemic preferences, internet access and provider availability all come into play when a patient decides whether or not to see their doctor from their living room — or if that option is available at all.
Broadband is a big issue…
MDH’s Minnesota Health Access Survey found that almost 20% of rural Minnesotans don’t have access to internet reliable enough for a video visit. This lack of internet access is an acute issue for rural medical providers. At Gundersen St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Wabasha, clinical social worker Mindy Wise sees it firsthand.
“It’d be great if everybody had internet access at fair and reasonable costs, especially for the senior group,” Wise said. “The budget can be a difficult thing for some people.”
Providers ran into similar problems at Zumbro Valley Health Center. Heather Geerts, ZVHC director of clinical services, said even if patients have a cell phone, limited data can make a telehealth visit less desirable.