Is Telehealth Right for Your Employees?

More employers than ever before are promoting telemedicine in their workplace healthcare plans. Should you?

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doctor using telehealth
What telehealth is, and how it works

According to the official telehealth site promoted by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, telehealth or telemedicine constitute “… the use of electronic information and telecommunication technologies to extend care when you and the doctor aren’t in the same place at the same time,” and include medical diagnostic, follow-up, prescription, urgent care, and vitals monitoring services.

In short, a phone, mobile device, or desktop computer are all people need to talk to their doctors and get medical attention that was formerly only accessible through in-person visits.

While the technology supporting remote health options has existed for several years already, it wasn’t until the 2020 global pandemic that telemedicine was pushed into the forefront of the American medical landscape thanks to the U.S. government’s regulations to combat the spread of COVID-19.

Notable examples include the new IRS’ relaxation of rules covering telemedicine consultations for COVID-19 in high-deductible plans as well as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act’s added diagnostic testing coverage and expanded telehealth offerings to reduce the strain on medical facilities and offer support to employers as well as their workers and families.

The growing popularity of telehealth appointments 

While many workers are still highly skeptical of the effectiveness or quality of care that can be provided through telemedicine, almost 2/3 of Americans polled in the 2020 Sykes Telehealth Survey say that the pandemic alone has been a critical factor in their willingness to try telemedicine in the near future.

Almost 2/3 of Americans polled in the 2020 Sykes Telehealth Survey say that the pandemic alone has been a critical factor in their willingness to try telemedicine in the near future.
SYKES telehealth survey graphic
Data from Sykes Survey Report: Americans’ Perceptions of Telehealth in the Era of COVID-19.

But telehealth isn’t a technology that only those infected with or potentially at risk of contracting COVID-19 use. Telemedicine brings with it numerous benefits for all employees and employers, including but not limited to:

  • Considerable cost savings for both employers and employees. For instance, a standard telemedicine appointment costs approx. $50 while a visit to the ER can be anywhere from a couple of hundred dollars to several thousand
  • Immediate and convenient access for all employees through internet-connected devices
  • Shorter wait times for appointments and consultations, particularly for urgent needs and conditions
  • Reduced risk of exposure to COVID-19 or other infectious diseases at hospitals and doctors’ offices
  • Better access to higher-quality care for workers and their families currently living in remote locations or unwilling to enter high-density urban areas during the pandemic

How employers can promote telehealth to their employees

Experts agree that employers should encourage employees to use telehealth offerings as often as possible, particularly in the interest of reducing the spread of COVID-19 within workplaces and communities. Mei Kwong, HR executive and Executive Director of the Center for Connected Health Policy explains why:

“If patients who just have scheduled regular visits can get them over telehealth, that minimizes their risk of exposure for them. And if you are infected and in quarantine, you can still get services without exposing other people to what you have. It’s all about minimum exposure for everyone, including healthcare workers.” (HR Executive, 03.2020)

But as many managers already know, getting people to use any kind of new technology is often easier said than done. Employee Benefit Advisor discovered that while employers have expanded their telehealth offerings with gusto in 2020, the apparent lack of interest and single-digit sign-up numbers for telehealth in large organizations had them unanimously stumped.

This apparent disconnect is mainly because of 2 factors:

  1. Lack of benefit awareness, and
  2. Employee medical provider preferences

In the latter case, employees oftentimes can’t choose to see their own doctors through telehealth apps and find themselves at the mercy of a random stream of one-time physicians unfamiliar with their medical histories or conditions.

Solutions

Employers can tackle these issues head-on by making small but impactful changes in the way they select telehealth plan providers and communicate the benefits to their staff. For instance, managers can make sure that app-developers and telehealth service providers offer recurring and familiar healthcare providers before signing on the dotted line.

They can also communicate telehealth service benefits through use-cases and plain language such as, “if John gets a workplace injury, these are the steps to get treatment…” and conduct internal training to make sure everyone understands how telemedicine works within the context of their workspace.

Research shows that up to 40% of workplace injuries and conditions can be preliminarily assessed virtually.

While telehealth is not applicable to every situation, research shows that up to 40% of workplace injuries and conditions can be preliminarily assessed virtually so workers can get treated faster, stay healthier, and come back to work sooner.

Conclusions

While everyone can agree that telehealth is a vital part of every employers’ toolkit to keep employees safe and healthy, there is still much work to do in order to improve the perception and adoption of telemedicine within the general population.

The previously mentioned Sykes survey found that nearly 42% of participants didn’t even know telehealth services existed and out of the ones who did, few had used the service themselves or even knew of anyone who had. So it’s up to employers to bridge this knowledge gap, and fast.

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