Keeping your rural employees healthy might be harder than ever before. Primary care is sparse in rural areas, and specialists are even less common. Hospitals are closing even as the population increases for the first time in nearly a decade.

When getting basic care means spending hours in the car, the health of your rural workers suffers. Amid these challenges, how can employers keep employees happy and healthy while lowering their healthcare spend?

Telemedicine is one solution. In this post, we’ll explain how it can provide much-needed care for rural employees and why it’s essential to your rural workforce.

Why access matters

Rural populations finally ticked up in 2018, but that trend followed eight years of decline, the first rural population decline in the nation’s history. As the number of people living outside urban centers shrank, the number of rural hospitals did, too. Right now, one-third are at risk of closure, according to the National Rural Health Association.

Nearly 20% of the population of the United States lives in rural communities. Yet the population of primary care physicians—the doctors who administer preventive care, treat sinus infections, and generally take care of us when we’re sick—isn’t meeting their needs.

There are only about 40 primary care physicians per 100,000 residents in rural areas, as compared with 53 per 100,000 in urban areas. Without local primary care services, many rural residents rely on hospitals as centers of care. Lack of choice means higher healthcare spending.

It also means worse health outcomes. Living far from medical care keeps people from getting the help they need. Rural employees may skip essential wellness exams or flu shots. They could also miss necessary screenings, ignore dangerous symptoms, or avoid treatment for chronic illnesses. All these behaviors stack up to create an unhealthy workforce, higher individual costs, and greater plan charges.

High prices climb even higher when rural employees do seek attention without finding the best option. Telemedicine can’t replace in-person care. But this valuable virtual benefit can serve as a first-call option for medical concerns— especially in rural communities.

In general, we find that telemedicine keeps healthcare costs low. Telemedicine can help the parent with a sick child who might have to drive hours—or visit a costly ER—to see a doctor in person.

In urban communities, an ER visit can mean a short trip and a bill for thousands of dollars. In rural communities, it can mean hours driving for care and still getting socked with that bill. As hospitals continue to close, savings from telemedicine is likely to become even more significant.

How telemedicine works for rural employees

Without enough doctors in rural communities, telehealth solutions are a popular way to offer virtual care without additional onsite doctors. This telemedicine technology can take many forms. For instance, telehealth solutions might allow local doctors to consult with specialists from isolated locations, or mental health counselors to work with an under-served population from a community center telehealth station.

Telehealth differs from telemedicine, which is an individual benefit often provided by employers. So, how might a telemedicine benefit the health of your rural workforce?

Unlike the advanced telehealth technology used in hospitals, telemedicine is widely accessible. It makes use of a device already in hand for most employees—the smartphone or tablet. We know that Americans of every generation have adopted this technology with zeal. Many seniors prefer to communicate with smartphones (see Why Baby Boomers are Flocking to Healthcare Apps for more).

Most telemedicine benefits exist in an app. Some even offer patients the opportunity to upload photos of visible symptoms. That gives telemedicine services the flexibility of face-to-face chat. Medical professionals can diagnose and treat illnesses by phone, even prescribing medication where appropriate.

Telemedicine can step into the gap to answer late-night questions and address concerns. In some cases, your rural employees may still need urgent care, a specialist, or an in-person visit. But for non-emergent concerns like ear infections, flu symptoms, and headaches, treatment can come from a face-to-face chat on their phones. Best of all, telemedicine costs less (often, nothing at all) than a visit to a traditional primary care provider, and represents incredible cost savings over an ER visit (see Why Telemedicine Use is Skyrocketing for more).

Of course, rural employees have to make use of their telemedicine offerings. That’s where a strong benefits communication strategy—during open enrollment and beyond—becomes essential (see How to Simplify Benefits Communication for Open Enrollment for more).

How HealthJoy increases telemedicine use

Choosing to roll a telemedicine benefit into your healthcare plan can fuel your cost-containment strategies (see HealthJoy Accelerates Your Cost Containment Strategy for more). If you employ a rural workforce, it can markedly improve access to medical care and, in turn, employee satisfaction.

HealthJoy’s telemedicine benefit boasts one of the highest rates of utilization in the industry, and we’ve learned a lot about promoting this valuable benefit.

For one thing, we emphasize telemedicine use beyond OE using custom notifications. For example, we might send an educational journey using JOY (our virtual assistant) reminding members about telemedicine a few months after OE. We also target members who haven’t engaged in the app for a few weeks, leading them through a journey that encourages understanding of their benefits and drives utilization.

With HealthJoy as your benefits experience platform, your employees gain a deeper understanding of the package you worked hard to build. That means that, when a medical need arises, they’re primed to make a decision that’s in their best interest. The result is better cost-containment, higher employee satisfaction, and a benefits experience your rural employees will love.

Want to learn more? Download our Telemedicine Buyer’s Guide e-book for step-by-step instructions on selecting the right telemedicine benefit for your rural employees.

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