Rural telemedicine use before and during the COVID-19 pandemic: Repeated cross-sectional study

Cherry Chu, Peter Cram, Andrea Pang, Vess Stamenova, Mina Tadrous, R. Sacha Bhatia

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

93 Scopus citations


Background: The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a notable increase in telemedicine adoption. However, the impact of the pandemic on telemedicine use at a population level in rural and remote settings remains unclear. Objective: This study aimed to evaluate changes in the rate of telemedicine use among rural populations and identify patient characteristics associated with telemedicine use prior to and during the pandemic. Methods: We conducted a repeated cross-sectional study on all monthly and quarterly rural telemedicine visits from January 2012 to June 2020, using administrative data from Ontario, Canada. We compared the changes in telemedicine use among residents of rural and urban regions of Ontario prior to and during the pandemic. Results: Before the pandemic, telemedicine use was steadily low in 2012-2019 for both rural and urban populations but slightly higher overall for rural patients (11 visits per 1000 patients vs 7 visits per 1000 patients in December 2019, P<.001). The rate of telemedicine visits among rural patients significantly increased to 147 visits per 1000 patients in June 2020. A similar but steeper increase (P=.15) was observed among urban patients (220 visits per 1000 urban patients). Telemedicine use increased across all age groups, with the highest rates reported among older adults aged ≥65 years (77 visits per 100 patients in 2020). The proportions of patients with at least 1 telemedicine visit were similar across the adult age groups (n=82,246/290,401, 28.3% for patients aged 18-49 years, n=79,339/290,401, 27.3% for patients aged 50-64 years, and n=80,833/290,401, 27.8% for patients aged 65-79 years), but lower among younger patients<18 years (n=23,699/290,401, 8.2%) and older patients ≥80 years (n=24,284/290,401, 8.4%) in 2020 (P<.001). There were more female users than male users of telemedicine (n=158,643/290,401, 54.6% vs n=131,758/290,401, 45.4%, respectively, in 2020; P<.001). There was a significantly higher proportion of telemedicine users residing in relatively less rural than in more rural regions (n=261,814/290,401, 90.2% vs n=28,587/290,401, 9.8%, respectively, in 2020; P<.001). Conclusions: Telemedicine adoption increased in rural and remote areas during the COVID-19 pandemic, but its use increased in urban and less rural populations. Future studies should investigate the potential barriers to telemedicine use among rural patients and the impact of rural telemedicine on patient health care utilization and outcomes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere26960
JournalJournal of Medical Internet Research
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • COVID-19
  • Chronic disease
  • Chronic illness
  • Health care
  • Health services
  • Older adults
  • Pandemic
  • Population
  • Remote
  • Rural
  • Telemedicine
  • Virtual care

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Informatics


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