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Posted by: Altura Benefits in Insurance
Employee health plans aren’t of much value to your workers if they can’t actually use their benefits. Telemedicine can expand access to care. Here’s why telemedicine is important in your employee benefits plan.
The terms “telehealth” and “telemedicine” often get thrown around more or less interchangeably.
According to the FCC, telemedicine refers to using telecommunications technologies to support the delivery of medical, diagnostic and treatment-related services. Telemedicine services are usually provided by doctors. Telehealth is similar, but it’s a broader term that can also include a wider variety of remote healthcare and services, including services provided by nurses, pharmacists, social workers and other healthcare providers.
Telemedicine systems make it possible for people to access care remotely, often from the comfort of their own homes. Patients may use apps on their smartphone or laptop to connect with healthcare providers. Care is often live, with healthcare professionals and patients interacting in real time via videoconferencing or over the phone, but it can also be asynchronous.
Telemedicine isn’t exactly new. According to a workshop summary published in the National Library of Medicine, an article published in Lancet in 1879 discussed using the telephone to reduce unnecessary office visits, and the radio has been used to support care on ships since the 1920s.
However, recent advances in technology make telemedicine more efficient. These days, nearly everyone has smartphones and laptops with videoconferencing capabilities that can be used in virtual visits.
The pandemic helped accelerate the adoption of telemedicine. As stay-at-home orders swept the country, many people turned to telemedicine as a way of receiving care from a doctor or nurse practitioner without leaving the home and risking exposure to COVID-19. New rules and the expansion of telemedicine benefits helped aid this adoption.
An HHS study found a 63-fold increase in Medicare telehealth utilization during the pandemic. Telehealth usage in private health plans also increased. The KFF 2021 Employer Health Benefit Survey found that among firms that offered health benefits and had at least 50 workers, 95% offered telemedicine benefits in 2021. In 2020, only 85% of these employers offered telemedicine benefits, and just three years ago, only 67% did.
Although COVID-19 prompted many people to embrace telemedicine, usage may outlast the pandemic. According to McKinsey & Company, telehealth usage peaked in April 2020, when usage surged to 78 times the February 2020 levels. After that, usage dropped, but it remained significantly above the pre-pandemic levels. As of February 2021, telehealth usage was about 38 times greater than it had been one year earlier.
Telemedicine is popular because it offers many advantages over in-person care. At the same time, telemedicine systems are not perfect, and because of the disadvantages, telehealth may not be appropriate in all situations. It’s important for people, including doctors and their patients, to understand the limitations of telemedicine.
Although screens make it possible for doctors to see their patients during virtual visits, it is not quite the same as having an in-person visit. The Doctors Company says that although the standard of care is the same, the most significant difference between telehealth and in-person visits is that the provider cannot perform a hands-on assessment in the former. Doctors may miss symptoms that could help them with their diagnoses.
Issues with technology can also cause other problems. For example, glitches in the telemedicine platform used could interfere with care. Security of personal health information can also be a concern, especially as incidents of cyberattacks and data breaches continue to rise. Additionally, while some people have many devices and are at ease with using them, other people lack devices that can be used in telemedicine, or they may be uncomfortable using them. If they are accustomed to in-person care, this may be their preference.
There’s a reason telemedicine has won so many people over. Actually, there are several reasons.
First of all, telemedicine can be very efficient. By getting rid of commute and wait times, telemedicine provides an attractive option for people with busy schedules, including both healthcare providers and patients. It’s possible to squeeze in a fast appointment, whereas an in-person visit might eat up the better part of an afternoon. For people with mobility or transportation problems, as well as those in rural areas without nearby facilities, telemedicine access can be a critical part of healthcare delivery.
Telemedicine can also be cost-effective. Patient costs will vary depending on their health insurance plan and how they receive care, but copays for telemedicine can be less expensive than copays for in-person visits, and some people may have $0 copays. According to a study published in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine, net cost savings per telemedicine visit ranged from $19 to $121.
There’s also the fact that many people simply don’t like going to the doctor’s office. This can be a matter of personal comfort – the doctor’s office isn’t exactly the most fun place to spend your time. It can also be a matter of health. During the pandemic, many people were worried about spreading or catching COVID-19 in healthcare facilities and other public places. Of course, the coronavirus is not the only concern. Other viruses can be spread in healthcare settings and keeping people at home can help reduce the risk of contagion.
Although remote doctor’s visits may not be appropriate in all situations, including medical emergencies, telehealth services can be used for many purposes. Telemedicine services can be especially helpful for conditions that require ongoing care, such as chronic disease management. Going to the doctor’s office for every follow-up appointment can be a hassle, and telemedicine and remote monitoring can make care more convenient.
According to HHS, telehealth can be used to receive urgent care for things like colds, coughs and stomachaches. It can also be appropriate for recurring conditions, such as migraines and certain infections, and for skin conditions. Telemedicine is also often useful for follow-up and care management, including prescription management, post-surgical follow-up and reviewing lab tests or x-ray results. Mental health treatment is another common use of telemedicine, and so is physical therapy.
Telemedicine probably won’t replace in-person care anytime soon, but it can supplement it.
Many people have tried telehealth in recent years, and a lot of them like the option and want to continue using it. McKinsey & Company says that 60% of survey respondents chose telehealth because it was more convenient than in-person care, and 40% plan to continue to use telehealth after the pandemic. Additionally, 63% are interested in broader digital health solutions, including online scheduling and virtual-first health plans.
Employers should be paying attention. Most employers that offer health insurance are now offering some form of telemedicine coverage. As a result, telemedicine is becoming an expected benefit, and those employers that have not added telehealth coverage may want to reconsider the decision fast.
Employers that are already offering telemedicine benefits may need to review their offerings. Telemedicine benefits can be obtained through a group health plan or through a standalone telemedicine services provider. There are many options to consider, and they may be very different in terms of the quality of care, convenience and cost.
KFF says that 95% of employers that offer health benefits and have at least 50 employees believe that telemedicine plays an important role in providing access to enrollees, and 47% say it plays a very important role.
Employers are working hard to support employee health, foster employee engagement and boost employee satisfaction. A strong employee health insurance package that includes good telemedicine benefits can help with these goals.
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