Make Telemedicine Your Healthcare Front Door

by | May 13, 2020

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Telemedicine is having a moment. During a pandemic, the appeal of contact-free medical appointments has never been more evident. As lockdowns and quarantines continue, providers, insurance companies, and even states are learning how to make telemedicine benefits more accessible.

Even before the pandemic, though, telemedicine was an ideal first stop for those seeking non-emergent medical care. The COVID-19 crisis may force employers to acknowledge a need to change the way their employees see telemedicine: not as a last resort, but as a front door to care.

In this post, we’ll discuss why building a strategy that highlights telemedicine is your best bet for the future of employee healthcare—no matter what that future brings.

Telemedicine is an open front door.

Telemedicine evolved right along with communication technology. From the very beginning, it allowed healthcare providers to connect with those who couldn’t otherwise seek care. Physicians may have used telegraphs to communicate about injuries as far back as the Civil War. Once telephones became more common in homes, doctors could communicate directly with their patients.

As we’ve moved away from the phone and toward text messages, smartphones, and video, telemedicine models have changed too. Today, most major telemedicine providers incorporate video to build a face-to-face rapport between medical providers and their patients.

In other words, telemedicine benefits bring care to people who can’t, won’t, or don’t want to visit in-person. It’s a more accessible option for those in rural areas, homebound people, or individuals with limited mobility (see This Benefit is Vital for Rural Employees for more).

It can’t replace in-person visits for everything, of course, but it can connect providers to patients quickly, without the barriers of travel – it can handle about 80% of typical visits. The pandemic makes those barriers more significant for more people. That’s forced us to turn to telemedicine first.

This Benefit is Vital for Rural Employees

In this post, we’ll explain how a telemedicine benefit provides much-needed care for rural employees, and why it’s essential to your rural workforce.

Learn more »

As a front door to healthcare, telemedicine saves time and money

When telemedicine is the front door to healthcare, employees save time and money. A classic example of the alternative is a person who takes their sick child to the emergency room in the middle of the night. We hope they’ll discover their illness is minor, but in an emergency room, even minor illnesses come with a shocking price tag (see our post Why Telemedicine Use is Skyrocketing for more).

Telemedicine visits can help patients avoid unnecessary and costly care. Online medical professionals can write referrals and prescriptions, recommend testing, or suggest a follow-up appointment. The cost to employers is lower relative not just to ER and urgent care, but to many primary care providers, too. With telemedicine as a front door to care, it can help employees make choices that are in the best interest of both their health and their wallets.

When further care is needed, telemedicine providers can help patients quickly choose the next steps. That might mean avoiding a crowded waiting room or just saving the time associated with a commute. With COVID-19 testing in short supply and a majority of cases creating only mild symptoms, telemedicine has become a meaningful way to take the burden off a stretched medical system. Some estimates are that March’s telehealth usage rates increased by 50%. Care doesn’t have to stop with a virtual consultation.

For your employees, the cost of telemedicine visits may vary from free to around the cost of an average copay. Many HealthJoy members access online medical consultations for free. The price depends on a variety of factors, including HSA eligibility. Many providers are now offering virtual visits in an effort to keep up with care; you’ve probably even received an email from your own doctor by now. We’re seeing virtual visits for previously unheard of services like telerehab (physical therapy) and even dental care.

For now, at least, the healthcare system is lowering costs in an effort to increase availability. Providers like Blue Cross Blue Shield are providing free telemedicine for members until June 2020; other visits might be subject to the same insurance copays and coverages as in-person visits. Some states are allowing physicians to establish primary care relationships virtually where an in-person visit was once required. Medicare and Medicaid are treating telemedicine the same way they would an in-person visit.

In short, the lay of the telemedicine landscape is shifting. Of course, those changes could roll back after pandemic restrictions subside. As more providers turn to virtual care, though, we may see permanent changes in the way people approach telemedicine. Regardless, if the success of your benefits package hinges on your ability to bring down costs and raise satisfaction, it’s essential that you set up your telemedicine benefit as your employees’ front door to care.

How to make your telemedicine benefit their first stop

Sure, telemedicine is more accessible, and often less expensive, than in-person alternatives. That hasn’t helped it leap to precedence before, though, and we can’t assume it will now because of temporary shifts. Making telemedicine the front door to healthcare requires us to change the way employees view telemedicine.

Telemedicine’s main stumbling block isn’t adoption—a SHRM survey found that 72% of employers offered a telemedicine benefit in 2019—but utilization. In a recent study, more than half of employees said they had no plans to use telemedicine while under stay-at-home orders. Perhaps worse, less than 30% said they’d received information about telemedicine from their health insurance provider. That’s relevant now because only 20% of those surveyed had used telemedicine before the pandemic. The 80% who haven’t used their telemedicine service likely won’t know where to look now.

To change the paradigm, you’ll need to rely on strong benefits education and communication strategies. We know, though, that that’s not enough. Never miss a chance to remind employees that their telemedicine benefit exists—in a manner that meets them where they already spend time. A static benefits booklet can’t do that when it’s buried in a desk drawer (see our post It’s Time to Kill the Benefits Booklet for more). Investing instead in email, SMS messaging or push notification technology, and a benefits experience platform can help drive up utilization while teaching employees the value of all your benefits.

It’s also worth considering how employees access a telemedicine benefit. If it’s provided through insurance and located only in the company’s app, it will be harder to keep top-of-mind. When you centralize your telemedicine benefit alongside other services like EAP, they all benefit.

It’s not yet clear how COVID-19 will impact the future of telemedicine. What is clear is that encouraging employees to use their telemedicine benefits as a front door to healthcare is a smart step into the future.

Introducing HealthJoy QuickLaunch: We’ve created a version of our benefits experience platform that meets the immediate needs of employees, with telemedicine and concierge support in just two business days. 

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