This year we’ve heard a lot about the sea change regarding virtual medical care. From a predicted increase at the beginning of the pandemic, we saw virtual care utilization jump up over the spring and summer as people chose remote visits over in-person care. Now that outpatient visits have returned to pre-pandemic levels, benefits experts are asking whether this moment in the sun represented a permanent shift in perception.
We sought answers to one part of that question in our recent State of the Benefits Experience Survey. We asked HR professionals whether the pandemic changed how they felt about providing virtual care, including EAP or behavioral health, to employees. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 89% of HR pros said they now placed greater importance on virtual care.
Let’s dig into how 2020 changed our minds about virtual care and how to maintain this benefit’s momentum in the years to come.
What do we mean by virtual care?
On-demand telemedicine is the type of virtual care widely offered by insurance carriers. Typically, “telemedicine” refers almost exclusively to the 1:1, synchronous (live) meetings between a doctor and a patient. It’s often accessible through insurance carrier apps or a benefits experience platform, but providers offer this type of care directly as well. From an HR perspective, commonly used types of virtual care include:
- Virtual medicine appointments – On-demand visits for non-emergent complaints. This type of virtual care can also include appointments with specialists, physical therapists, and more. Typically, these visits take place over video, but providers might also conduct them over the phone. Third-party providers, insurance carriers, and medical offices all offer types of virtual medical appointments.
- Virtual behavioral health – Mental health support offered via 1:1 meetings with clinicians. Patients can schedule an appointment with a provider and meet with them on an ongoing basis.
- Employee Assistance Program (EAP) – EAP isn’t always housed under the telehealth umbrella, but this phone-based service connects employees with remote support for mental health, substance abuse, legal concerns, and more.
2020 changed the way we view virtual care
When much of the U.S. went into lockdown this spring, virtual care provided a lifeline. One study from Harvard University, the Commonwealth Fund, and Phreesia estimated a 60% decline in outpatient procedures in early March. That study found a corresponding rise in telemedicine visits, which peaked in April. According to the researchers, telemedicine visits have declined as primary care visits rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, but overall, telemedicine visits are higher than they were pre-COVID.
“I think telemedicine/virtual care has brought peace of mind to more people for most areas of their health, especially with more mental health options (talk therapy, etc.) available via virtual care during this tough year,” said Natalie Morgan, Director of HR at recruiting software company CareerPlug, via email. “We’ve definitely had people take advantage of it.”
Providers are fueling the shift, too. A McKinsey and Company study found that 57% of providers view telemedicine more favorably than they did before the pandemic, and 64% of providers are now more comfortable using it.
Our survey uncovered that this change in perception extends to HR leaders, too.
“With the onset of the pandemic, there has been a shift for interacting virtually and I think both consumers and healthcare providers have adjusted and learned that the shift to virtual care [is] not so disruptive and much easier to manage than what was once perceived,” Lesa M. Votovich, Vice President of Health and Benefits at consulting firm Cowden Associates, Inc., said via email.
So, will telemedicine enjoy this boost in utilization forever? That depends on a few factors. As an HR leader, one is largely out of your control: carrier coverage.
While many carriers waived fees for in-network virtual care visits over the last six months, several, including United Healthcare, ended those waivers in September. Those waivers allowed patients to visit virtually with providers they used to see in person. As this becomes less accessible and less affordable, patients may turn back to in-person visits, as the Commonwealth Fund study demonstrated.
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HR leaders can still support employees by providing on-demand virtual care, including EAP and behavioral health, to fill the gap for employees.
Human resources leaders may also view virtual care as more important due to workforce changes. As the pandemic drags on, many companies are making the shift to permanent remote-first work. CareerPlug made that shift in August, and Morgan says it’s made virtual care even more valuable.
“At this point, I would never change to a provider or plan that didn’t offer robust telemedicine offerings,” CareerPlug’s Morgan said. “If anything, I’d be more open to adopting plans that offered better virtual care benefits, especially as our workforce spreads out and we have some employees in more rural areas without the convenience of healthcare specialists in their town.”
Maintaining momentum in 2021
Why should you put your precious time into promoting your virtual care benefits? While it can never wholly replace urgent care, one study found that on-demand telemedicine visits saved participants an average of $19-$121 per visit. Telemedicine also offers real value for employees who save travel time, worry, and exposure as the pandemic drags on.
Interestingly, when we asked survey participants about their current telemedicine utilization rates, 20% responded they were between 5 and 10%. Fifteen percent placed utilization between 10 and 15%, and 13% set utilization between 15 and 20%. Only 9% reported utilization above 20%.
Utilization for other virtual care benefits, like EAP and behavioral health, is generally estimated to hover around 5%. No matter how much more you value virtual care in 2021, utilization will probably be your biggest hurdle. It can be difficult to access these benefits through carriers, and your employees simply may not understand their value.
One simple answer is to centralize your benefits, including virtual care, in a single platform. Virtual care may have enjoyed a burst of public recognition during the pandemic, but its value will last well beyond this crisis. We know that employers value providing virtual healthcare like never before. Now, it’s time to move from perception toward providing virtual care employees will use.