Insight to Action

Telemedicine: Not Just for Remote Recommendations

14 September 2016

Employee Benefit News has reported that telemedicine kiosks are becoming increasingly popular, as part of a larger trend in which telemedicine is growing as a benefit offering from many employers. According to a National Business Group on Health survey of 140 large employers, 48% offered telemedicine benefits last year. [1]This year, 74% of the large employers surveyed reported offering telemedicine benefits to their employees; a notably large increase. More specifically, Avizia’s recent survey of healthcare executives revealed that 72% of hospitals and 52% of physician groups currently offer telemedicine services.

What do telemedicine services actually consist of? Telemedicine refers to the use of electronic communications across various locations to improve patient health.[2] More specifically, telemedicine can take the form of online medical visits, video-chat sessions with healthcare professionals, and semi-private kiosks at worksites, equipped with common screening tools. The concept of telemedicine was originally developed in order to address the challenges that clinicians often face in serving rural populations. Today, telemedicine is being used for other purposes too, such as for routine care without long waiting times, or the real-time monitoring of ICU patients by specialists with remote access to hospitals.[3]

Employers and insurers may find telemedicine benefits appealing for a number of reasons. Employee productivity can be increased when travel and wait times for healthcare are decreased. Expensive trips to the emergency room and urgent care facilities can be avoided with easy access to kiosks and other electronic tools. While worksite kiosks can be pricey, costing employers $15,000-$60,000, they have the potential to save companies money when employees are not constantly turning to expensive in-person doctor visits.[4] Employees are often excited by the prospect of telemedicine given the convenience of accessing more routine services like strep tests and blood pressure screenings. Telemedicine can help with the management of chronic diseases, which helps improve the wellness of companies as a whole, satisfying employees, employers, and insurers alike.

The largest concern over the increasing popularity of telemedicine is the quality of medical care being received by patients who elect to do so electronically. The American Medical Association has released a number of guidelines to ensure high standards of care are being met, even when patients and clinicians are not in the same room.[5]

Like many aspects of health plan management, when it comes to healthcare employers, there are always unique considerations. They are thinking about how telemedicine can promote Primary Care Provider relationships with physicians in their own organization, so are looking at ways to create their own service or partner with telemedicine vendors who can include their physicians. The healthcare employer has to effectively manage productivity of the workforce while addressing the rising cost of care.

Of course, the increasing trend in telemedicine offerings have led to changes in healthcare laws. This summer, Rhode Island became the 31st state to enact a telemedicine coverage law. Policymakers across the country are calling for commercial health insurers to cover telemedicine treatment just as they would in-person medical care. [6]

Results of workplace kiosk implementations have varied across organizations, so only time will tell if their cost effectiveness is worthy of its hype in the industry. As more data becomes available in the coming years, it will certainly be interesting to explore the relationships between telemedicine benefit offerings and employee health outcomes, as well as employer savings.