Before COVID-19, almost 70% of organizations with 50+ employees offered telemedicine benefits. Yet only 11% of consumers had ever met a physician virtually. Then came the pandemic. Seemingly overnight, telemedicine visits jumped 154% as stay-at-home orders compelled consumers to embrace remote care services. Today, nearly two years since COVID-19 reached America’s shores, telemedicine is proving its staying power in every possible way.
Telemedicine visits are 38X higher than they were pre-pandemic, according to a recent McKinsey analysis. Surveys show that patients who have used telemedicine services since Covid-19 are generally satisfied with their experience. And not surprisingly, investments in the space are booming. What does that mean for employers? If you want to establish (or expand) telemedicine benefits for your employees, now could be the ideal time.
Here’s what your company needs to know about telemedicine from an employee benefits perspective.
What is telemedicine?
Telemedicine is the use of technology to communicate with healthcare providers. Rather than visit a doctor’s office in-person, telemedicine allows patients to receive care through video calls, emails, online portals and other virtual tools.
You’ve likely also heard the term “telehealth.” The American Academy of Family Physicians defines telehealth more broadly than telemedicine. Whereas telemedicine is remote clinical services, telehealth also includes a wide range of non-clinical services.
How does telemedicine work?
Every provider approaches telemedicine services differently. However, virtual visits typically take place over the phone, via video call or through an app. During the visit, the provider will ask the same questions you’d be asked at an in-person visit, and you may receive treatment recommendations based on their findings.
Telemedicine is currently used for non-life-threatening conditions such as general doctor’s visits or consultations; mental health consultations and therapy sessions; some physical therapy sessions; and follow-up appointments. For some specialty practitioners—physical therapists, for example—telemedicine can enhance care by providing a glimpse into the patient in their home environment.
Although telemedicine is quickly evolving, it’s still not suitable for life-threatening or emergency situations. It’s also not advised for medical conditions that involve diagnostic care such as blood work and imaging, or for severe illnesses. For patients with complex conditions, medical professionals typically still require in-person visits to fully assess treatment options.
Emerging telemedicine benefit trends
In the National Business Group on Health’s 2021 Large Employers’ Health Care Strategy and Plan Design Survey, 53% of employers planned to expand their virtual care solutions. As telemedicine adoption continues to grow, numerous studies have pointed to its potential cost savings for employers. (Think: Better chronic illness management and fewer “after hours” visits.) By one estimate from the American Hospital Association, telemedicine could save U.S. employers as much as $6 billion per year—and that was before Covid-19.
Increased adoption and new advancements will continue fueling telemedicine’s rise into 2022, with the virtual-first plan emerging as a major trend to watch. These plans typically provide lower premiums but require patients to see their primary care provider virtually. As this still-emerging space becomes more developed, expect to see more virtual-first options for your employee healthcare benefits. (The number of virtual health plans has increased from one to eight since 2019, according to Employee Benefit News.)
Telemedicine is also expanding into another post-pandemic focus area: the importance of mental health. As more employers enhance their mental health benefits, expect to see a larger emphasis on virtual consultations and therapy sessions.
As virtual models continue to prove their cost-saving prowess, employers are finding new ways to incentivize their workers to adopt a virtual-first healthcare mentality. By some estimates, as many as 70% of patient medical issues can be resolved without in-person visits. That presents employers with a clear opportunity: giving employees more efficient care while reducing overall healthcare costs.
Does your organization need help navigating telemedicine benefits and virtual health plans? Our team is ready to help. Contact us to get expert advice and a customized quote.