Telehealth: What’s in it for employers and employees

Various forms of telehealth — whereby patients access medical care remotely using telecommunications technology — have been around for years. But these days its popularity is accelerating exponentially, and employers need to take note.

Smart Business spoke with Kim Jacobs, vice president of Consumer Innovation at UPMC Health Plan, about the state of telehealth, and what it means for employers and employees.

Why is telehealth’s popularity accelerating exponentially?

A big reason for its increasing prevalence is that technology now makes it easier than ever for patients to access care using their smartphones anytime, from anyplace.

Another key driver: The health care industry is now figuring out how to fairly and consistently reimburse providers for the service. Therefore, providers are now incentivized to offer it.

On the payer side, health plans are increasingly supportive of the practice because they see it as value-based care that improves the patient experience, improves health outcomes and is far less costly than ER and urgent care visits, for example.

Why should employers want to see telehealth included in their health benefits package?

As for employers, the reasons to include telehealth in their health insurance benefits package are numerous and significant. They include:

  • Improved care. It’s simply another option for employees, especially those who live in rural areas where nearby health care options are less prevalent.
  • Lower cost. Surveys show that the average cost of an emergency room visit is $700, with urgent care visits averaging $150. The average cost of a telehealth visit is $40.
  • More convenience. Increasingly, telehealth access is 24/7. All you need is a smartphone, tablet or computer, and you can access care instantly.
  • Better health. Because it’s quick, convenient and relatively low cost, employees are more likely to seek medical care when they need it, instead of putting it off until things become more serious — and expensive.
  • Higher productivity. A visit to the doctor or urgent care center can take half a day or more, which results in significant time away from work — at the expense of productivity. A telehealth visit takes mere minutes.
  • Better employee retention. With telehealth becoming more and more popular, employees are seeing it as a necessary part of their benefits package. If employers don’t cover it, employees will notice.

What is the very latest with telehealth, and what should employers keep an eye on?

The technology is going to keep getting better. The interface between patient and provider used to be primarily by email, text or phone. Many telehealth operations are now switching over to real-time, face-to-face video chat.

This opens up some amazing possibilities. Now, a doctor can literally do a skin rash assessment, for example, while you point your smartphone camera to your arm. Or the doctor can have you say ‘ah’ and look down your throat by way of your laptop camera.

Also, in some cases, a telehealth-based provider can now send an instant email to your primary care physician (PCP) about your visit, so your PCP stays in the loop. In other cases, the provider can send a prescription to your local pharmacy for pickup right after your visit.

We will see more and more of these advances, and they all have the potential to positively impact employee health and productivity.

Given all this, it’s no surprise that the percentage of U.S. large employers that offered a telehealth benefit to their employees rose from 48 percent in 2015 to more than 70 percent in 2016, according to the Wall Street Journal. That percentage is sure to go higher in 2017 and beyond.

Insights Health Care is brought to you by UPMC Health Plan