Telemedicine is a growing force in the health care industry, driven by consumer demand for fast and affordable health care. Consumers and employers alike are searching for cost-effective health care solutions that are easy to access. Telemedicine fills this void in the health care marketplace. Telemedicine technology is nothing new. It’s been around for over forty years. Hospitals and home health care services were among the first to adopt it. Telemedicine makes it possible to connect health care providers with patients in remote areas, so they can get the health care they need. This makes health care accessible to more patients, regardless of where they live or work. From its modest beginnings, Telemedicine is an expanding force thanks to its ability to efficiently and affordably deliver health care services. This article addresses how Telemedicine can benefit consumers and businesses and why it’s experiencing unprecedented growth.
Change is in the air when it comes to health insurance, with regards to consumer and employers. With the advent of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, uninsured consumers are now purchasing health insurance. Businesses are making changes in response to PPACA too. Some are switching to self-funded plans, plans with higher deductibles, or defined-contribution plans or referring their employees to exchanges where they can select their own insurance. Alternatively, many are changing their employment strategies altogether, leaving employees uninsured.
Because of the changing health care environment, self-funded companies are more motivated than ever to reduce health care costs and keep employees healthy, so they miss fewer days from work and are more productive. While many companies once embraced wellness programs as a solution for keeping employees healthy and productive, wellness programs in their current format haven’t lived up to their potential for many companies. Employees are often reluctant to participate in these programs and it is difficult to measure their effectiveness. Whether individuals receive insurance from their employer or select their own plans, consumerism is fast becoming a reality.
As health care changes continue to unfold, consumers will be confronted with higher copays and deductibles. As a result, they’ll demand other options. Many factors are coming together that make it more difficult for consumers to get affordable and timely medical care. For one, wait times to see physicians are increasing due to the growing shortage of doctors nationwide. Long wait times force patients to delay treatment or to not seek treatment at all. This means more missed days from work and reduced productivity for themselves and or their employers. Minor problems can turn into major ones when treatment is delayed. Even when employees can see a doctor, long wait times mean more time away from work. This hurts employers and employees. When employees can’t get in to see a doctor due to long wait times, they’re more likely to seek treatment from an urgent care center or emergency room at a higher cost. Estimates are that half of emergency room visits aren’t emergencies at all.
Is there a better alternative? According to the American Medical Association, 70% of patient medical complaints don’t require an office visit. They can be handled over the phone. When medical problems are resolved by phone it’s more convenient and cost-effective for employees and employers. The cost savings for a single employee that uses Telemedicine is around $300 per year and for a family of four $1000 yearly.
Healthcare has changed and will continue to evolve. Consumers need access to convenient and affordable health care. Telemedicine, data-enabled kiosks and e-visits supply what consumers and employers are looking for easy access to quality medical care. According to Towers Watson: Over the next five years. nearly half the employers expect a significant or transformative change. More specifically, 49% expect more healthcare price transparency and 45% expect to see new access points for healthcare delivery, such as Telemedicine, e-visits and data-enabled kiosks.”
Many large companies are already providing Telemedicine services to their employees. Currently, companies like Amazon, AT&T, The Home Depot, Accenture, Calipers, Metro PCS and Penske are offering Telemedicine services. Approximately eight million employees are receiving the benefits Telemedicine offers.
It's a win for all. Individuals save time and money. Employers can see tremendous reductions in absenteeism, leading to increased productivity. Self-funded companies can see immediate savings to their bottom line.
Telemedicine is not a replacement for a consumer’s primary care physician. Telemedicine services offer an additional resource for consumers that are unable to see their primary care doctor in a timely manner. Telemedicine physicians are credentialed and undergo a rigorous screening process before being hired. Most are practicing physicians with an average of 15 years of experience treating patients and have backgrounds in internal medicine, family practice pediatrics or emergency medicine. In many cases, they work with their clients’ primary care physician and send records from the consultation directly to the patient’s doctor, so the primary care physician is still involved in the patient’s care. Consumers are encouraged to see their primary care physician for extended care and for regular physicals and wellness checks.
Some programs offer more expanded services, such as access to specialists who respond to medical questions via email, often sending links to articles and videos designed to educate consumers and help them manage their health.
Why is Telemedicine such a growing force in the marketplace? It tackles the three most important issues facing healthcare today:
- Lower costs
- Timely access to health care
- Quality health care
Telemedicine gives patients access to licensed, board-certified, experienced physicians 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Individuals with a minor illness that doesn’t require an in-person visit can talk to a doctor online or by phone. Because of this interaction, they can get an appropriate diagnosis and treatment in an hour or less. Minor illnesses would include:
- Cold and Flu
- Sinus infections
- Respiratory infections
- Stomach ache
- Pink eye
- Urinary tract infection
- Ear infection
- And many more
Why is Telemedicine such a winning concept? When employees miss unscheduled time from work it costs employers around $3,600 per year for each hourly worker and $2,650 yearly for salaried employees. These statistics are from Absenteeism: The Bottom Line Killer, a publication produced by Arcadian, a workforce solution company. Telemedicine reduces absenteeism by giving employees access to timely and cost-effective medical care.
It’s not just acute health problems like colds and flu that cost employers money from lost productivity. Chronic health conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, heart disease, cancer, obesity and mental health problems do too. In one survey carried out by The Gallup-Heathway’s’ Well-Being Index involving 94,000 workers in 14 major occupations in the U.S., of the 77% of workers who fit the survey’s definition of having chronic health conditions, the annual costs related to lost productivity totaled $84 billion dollars.
Telemedicine increases access to care and reduces emergency room and urgent care usage for problems that can be resolved without a face-to-face visit. Patients that use Telemedicine services report a high rate of satisfaction and resolution of their problem.
Typical results from a prominent Telemedicine firm from 2012 showed the following:
- 150,000 medical consults.
- 91% of patient issues resolved.
- 97%-member satisfaction rating.
- Average wait time of 16 minutes.
- Redirection of care.
- 43% would have gone to doctor.
- 34% would have used an urgent-care clinic.
- 8% would have visited the ER.
When factoring in the costs saved by redirecting care and keeping the employee at work, our calculations show that each call to a Telemedicine doctor will save an employer close to $240.40.
With all the benefits, why aren’t all companies offering Telemedicine to their employees? Telemedicine is a new concept to consumers and many still don’t understand it. Plus, some Telemedicine service providers sell their services for a low fee and charge the employee a fee, usually $35 to $40, for each employee phone consult. Employees may be reluctant to pay for a service they don’t yet understand. This sets up a barrier to usage.
Are there ways to employers can address this problem? Telemedicine is still in its infancy and some consumers are unaware of its existence and how it works. Employers can help by educating employees about the benefits of Telemedicine and the convenience it offers. Another way is to build the monthly fee employees pay for a Telemedicine consult into the monthly cost of the program so employees don’t have to pay out of pocket for a Telemedicine consultation.
What is needed today to make a Telemedicine benefit a success story is simple. It's the same thing all corporate wellness directors have attempted for the last 25 years. It's all about changing behavior. It is far more difficult to change behavior when trying to get employees to change their diets and go to the gym. It isn't so difficult to change behavior when introducing a Telemedicine benefit.
1. The priority? Change the business model. Include the doctor’s fee in the monthly cost of the program so the employee doesn’t have to pay out of pocket to consult with a doctor. With this barrier removed, employees have nothing to lose.
2. Educate employees by building an awareness-building campaign. Employers can create greater awareness of Telemedicine’s benefits by sending out a newsletter or regular updates and reminders about how to use Telemedicine services, when it’s appropriate to use these services, what they can expect when they do along with seasonal health information and tips like the importance of getting a flu shot, how to avoid colds, etc. Employees need to be reminded periodically that they have access to the program, so they’ll remember it when they need it.
3. Encourage employees to share their Telemedicine experiences via internal communication materials. This builds awareness, encourages other employees to use it and remind other employees about the program. This helps the program gain credibility and traction with employees.
Telemedicine will become more accepted as other employees use it and talk about their experiences. Employers can expedite this process by encouraging employees to share their experiences with Telemedicine with other employees. At the same time, employers themselves should educate employees about the benefits Telemedicine consultations offer. As employees discover how easy it is to use Telemedicine services word will spread quickly and utilization will increase.
Telemedicine is a solution whose time has come. Healthcare is rapidly changing. The current model of office-based health care is less efficient than it once was and will continue to evolve and change - but not necessarily for the better. Telemedicine offers a solution for companies look for ways to reduce costs yet still offer their employees access to health care. Telemedicine consultations save employees and employers time and money. Employers benefit from reduced absenteeism, cost savings and increased productivity. Employees enjoy immediate access to health care with fewer out-of-pocket expenses. It’s an idea that’s already working for companies and will continue to grow well into the future. It's not the future. It's here today.
Larry Jones is the founder and CEO of TelaCare, an innovative health and lifestyle benefits company that offers Telemedicine as well as a variety of other non-insurance health benefits to companies, municipalities, financial and educational institutions and organizations of all sizes.
While many Telemedicine providers charge a monthly access fee and a consultation fee to speak with a doctor, TelaCare, offers 24/7 access to licensed, board-certified doctors with no medical consultation fee and a low cost monthly fee which leads to greater utilization and a healthier workplace.
TelaCare, offers many other benefits including dental, vision, telephonic counseling, travel assistance, fitness and others in affordable packages for employers, individuals and families.
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