More Employees Using Telemedicine Benefit Because of Cost, Access

Telemedicine is not a new concept. Not at all. In fact, telemedicine dates back to at least the start of the last century when experimenters were sending medical records electronically and consultations by telephone.

But, telemedicine has come a long way since then — especially in the last 25 years with the evolution of the Internet. However, during the Internet age, employees have been reticent to adopt telemedicine. Technical issues, quality of care and security concerns typically top the list of reasons many employees have not used telemedicine in the past.

But over the last few years, I’ve noticed a shift in employee behavior: More people are starting to try — and are embracing — telemedicine. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, “Sixty-seven percent of firms with 50 or more workers who offer health benefits cover the provision of some health care services through telemedicine.”

Why the recent shift in employee adoption? Three reasons:

1. Lower cost

Every employee is concerned with costs when making health care decisions. And, for years, even though it was more costly, employees would go visit their physician. But recently, more employees seem to be acknowledging and understanding a simple concept: telemedicine costs a fraction of what employees would spend on visits to urgent care clinics or emergency rooms. In fact, our clients at Trustmark Health Benefits are currently saving an estimated $495 per telemedicine episode, on average! A Kaiser survey found that 39% of employers with health plans that include telemedicne offer an incentive for their employees to use it rather than an in-office visit.

2. Trust is growing

In many situations, health care comes down to one word: Trust. People visit physicians time after time because they trust them. That trust is built by giving patients good advice, delivering exceptional care and by doing the right thing.

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Trust is relatively easy to build when you can see your doctor face-to-face a few times a year. Building trust over the phone — or, tougher yet, the Internet — is more challenging. But, that feeling might be changing. A study by the University of Rochester Medical Center found that the quality of care delivered via telemedicine was as effective as in-person care. Another study in the American Journal of Managed Care found that patients who utilized telemedicine had a lower hospital re-admission rate and scored lower for depression, anxiety, and stress.

Employers are getting smarter and more effective in how they facilitate virtual care in the workplace. In some cases, employers are changing their heath plans to eliminate co-pays for telemedicine to encourage use among employees. In other instances, employers are designating private rooms in the workplace for employees to access telemedicine during breaks or over the lunch hour.

3. Better and more access

Did you know employees who live in rural areas have access to only 13.1 doctors per 10,000 people as opposed to 31.2 doctors per 10,000 people in urban areas? Did you also know that if you’re an employee living in a rural area of the United States, chances are you may have to travel upwards of 200 miles to visit the nearest hospital? Rural access to health care is pretty tough in the United States right now. Add to that the rural physician shortage and the fact that access to specialists in areas like mental health and obstetrics is almost non-existent and you may even classify it as a crisis. But given that 81% of all Americans now own a smartphone, healthcare is more accessible than ever before for these rural populations. No geographical limits. No wait times. No traveling 200 miles to see a primary care doctor. It’s not surprising these rural employees have recently adopted telemedicine in a big way!

So yes, the tide seems to be turning when it comes to telemedicine. Employees are becoming more comfortable with technology — and employers are getting smarter about how to facilitate it. The quality of care is improving. And, telemedicine is saving employees a lot of money! As these trends continue, I expect we’ll see even more employers prioritizing telemedicine as part of their employee benefit packages in the year ahead.

Alissa Traughber is a director of product management at Trustmark Health Benefits, working out of the company’s home office in Lake Forest, Illinois.

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