Few things have had as much impact on the health care landscape in recent decades as technology. Telemedicine is the perfect example. While telehealth isn’t a new concept, technology has taken us from the “dark ages” of doctors making house calls to futuristic wearable devices such as the Apple Watch that can sense abnormalities and call a doctor for you.
Does it get any more convenient than that? That kind of convenience is one of the biggest reasons telemedicine is becoming a staple in employee benefits packages.
According to the Large Employers' 2018 Health Care Strategy and Plan Design Survey by the National Business Group on Health (NBGH), 96 percent of large employers now offer telemedicine services to their employees. And according to the National Business Group on Health/Towers Watson - Annual Best Practices in Health Care Survey, almost all companies offering group health care plans will offer a telemedicine benefit by the year 2020.
Convenient, quality care that reduces costs. What’s not to like?
Telemedicine makes sense today for a lot of reasons, including:
- Convenience. With busy lives and family obligations, getting to a doctor can be difficult. With a telemedicine program, 24/7 access to care is as easy as logging into a web-based portal from a computer or smartphone or calling a toll-free hotline and talking directly to a nurse or doctor.
- Less waiting. It’s not unusual to wait weeks or even months to see a specialist, but sometimes that can be the case even for routine care. People with pressing health concerns can’t wait. Telemedicine appointments can happen virtually and immediately.
- Improved access. Telemedicine is especially helpful for employees living in rural or remote areas with limited access to doctors and medical care and for accessing care and getting vital instructions during emergencies.
- Lower costs. A visit to a primary care physician or the emergency room can cost hundreds, even thousands of dollars for someone without insurance. But according to studies by The Alliance for Connected Care and others, telehealth visits average $40 to $50. The cost savings really add up for consumers with frequent health care concerns who tend to use the ER and urgent care.
- Better chronic illness management. It can be hard for employees with chronic conditions to make regular visits to their doctor. Telehealth offers the technology to transmit vital signs and other data from a patient’s home to a doctor’s office.
Employee engagement is lagging but growing slowly
The biggest hurdle to a successful telemedicine program? Employee buy-in. Although engagement is slowly on the rise, it’s one aspect of these programs that’s still lagging.
But many employers make the mistake of adopting the attitude, “If we build it, they will come,” thinking if they merely offer the benefit, employees will enthusiastically embrace it.
Not so. Many people are still uneasy about getting medical care remotely from a doctor they don’t know. So, when you roll out a telehealth benefits program, it needs to be accompanied by a robust education and instruction campaign to build awareness and drive engagement.
Exciting times for telemedicine
The future looks bright for telehealth, and 2018 brought some of the biggest advances yet:
- Changes in state and federal policies substantially boosted reimbursements for telehealth.
- Congress passed the CHRONIC Care Act, which paved the way for elderly and chronically ill patients to benefit from telemedicine in their home.
- More payers added telehealth to their employee benefits.
- Corporate giants such as Apple and Samsung pioneered new ways to deliver telehealth.
- Physicians and patients started using telemedicine to care for mental health, substance abuse, behavioral health, cancer, post-surgical recovery and more.