Can Telemedicine Make Health Care Benefits Healthier?

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December 12, 2018

“Telemedicine” refers to health care services that are delivered by a health care professional through video calls on computers, tablets or smartphones. 

It goes by other names, including “virtual doctor visit,” “telehealth,” “virtual care” and more. Whatever you choose to call it, telemedicine is considered a new use of technology designed to curb health care costs – but it’s largely the result of a shortage of health care providers, particularly in rural, sparsely populated areas of the country. The United States faces a physician shortfall that could be as large as 121,000 by end of 2030, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) discovered that 34 percent of small-to mid-size companies were offering some form of telemedicine. And half of the large employers surveyed by the National Business Group on Health (NBGH) listed telemedicine as a top initiative in 2019 to establish virtual physician visits for a wider range of medical needs.

What Are The Benefits?

Employees get convenient access to care for medical conditions from sore throats and flu to drug addiction issues. They simply log in to a web-based system or call a toll-free number to talk with a physician, nurse, physician’s assistant or other health care professional. At this point the employee can talk about their condition, get answers to questions, and the professional can also conduct a health background review and even perform a visual exam. If it’s determined that there is a need, the patient will receive advice to seek immediate or follow-up care.

Making an appointment to see a physician in person can result in long waits. But with telemedicine, there is little or no waiting for medical attention. This can be absolutely essential if the symptoms indicate potentially significant medical problems.

Access to health care for employees living in remote areas can be limited as can access for older individuals with mobility issues. Telemedicine can provide easier, immediate assistance. This is also ideal for employees who have to work long hours or can’t take time off from work.

Telemedicine can help employers reduce health care costs. According to Kaiser Health News, the average cost of a telemedicine call is in the neighborhood of $79 versus a visit to a physician where the average cost is around $146. For employees with frequent health care concerns and their employers, using telemedicine can add up to:

  • Reduced costs and less out of pocket fees for copays at urgent care or ERs
  • Time savings by avoiding absenteeism for office visits
  • More direct care that leads to a healthier work force, which can lead to increased productivity

A study published by the National Institutes of Health found that 92 percent of patients that used telemedicine saved $32 in fuel costs; 84 percent saved $100 in wages; and 74 percent saved $75-$150 in family expenses.

What Are the Downsides?

As with any new idea that promises better care and reduced costs, there are some negative issues that need to be understood before jumping into the deep end of the technology pool.

The same Kaiser Health study cited above also discovered that telemedicine visits generated additional medical use, often resulting in increased spending by the payer.

An employee might not be able to adequately describe symptoms or problems over the phone to a physician with no prior patient relationship. This can result in misdiagnosis. It also may mean that the employee hears what they want to hear (“it sounds like you only have a cold”) and chooses not to get the proper lab tests or see a doctor in person. And that can delay proper medical care.

A Rand Corporation study discovered that 88 percent of telemedicine use is through new utilization. Only 12 percent is used by regular health care users substituting virtual care for in-person care. If employers’ plan members aren’t using the resource, it isn’t helping. Mercer, a large employee benefits consultant, found that worker use of telemedicine was “frustratingly low.” After all, it’s difficult for many people to break out of the traditional doctor office visit. And many employees may not know the services are available or may be nervous about figuring out how to use them.

A potential problem is the issue of jurisdictional questions regarding medical malpractice claims. If patients are advised or treated by physicians or facilities in states with different liability laws or damage caps, this could create extremely messy problems. Another risk may be, depending on the state, nurse practitioners may have more freedom to care for patients, while physicians must always supervise physician assistants. 

There are also potential cyber risk concerns associated with telemedicine. Employee issues such as errors, “insider” threats and unintentional disclosures can cause online risk to personal and corporate data. In fact, 43 percent of all health care cyber threats come from the inside. That’s why employee training can be every bit as important as protection from outside threats.

How Do You Get Employees To Use Telemedicine?

Educate. Educate. Educate. 

The main mistake many benefits administrators make is assuming that employees will be excited by the prospect of virtual visits and will be willingly participate. To the contrary, many employees don’t know telemedicine visits are available, how they work or whether they will receive legitimate health analysis over the phone or the internet.

So, first employees need to understand what it is and that real doctors, nurses, physician’s assistants are on the other end. They need to be instructed in how it works, so they’re not anxious about using the system. And they need to know how it will benefit them.

A great time to launch your educational campaign would be during the beginnings of cold and flu season when many employees are needing the service. 


Marsh & McLennan Agency Can Help

Our health care and cyber experts can assist you with choosing the right system for your business, creating the right employee training and education, and developing cyber risk analysis and protection. Contact your local Marsh & McLennan Agency representative for more information.