How (and Why) To Incorporate Telehealth Into Your Benefits Strategy

Doctor having a video call with a patient

How (and Why) To Incorporate Telehealth Into Your Benefits Strategy

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, most plans viewed telehealth as a fringe option. Limited virtual solutions and low utilization rates hampered the experience. But starting in 2020, telemedicine offerings and usage skyrocketed amid regional lockdowns and fears of being in a physical office.

Though telehealth visits have decreased from their pandemic highs, utilization remains far above previous levels. Annual visits to the provider Teladoc Health have been 48% higher since 2019, reports the human resources association SHRM. And about 80% of physicians say they will continue providing telemedicine, according to the nonprofit data research firm USAFacts.

Telemedicine is also popular with employees and employers. More than 90% of adults who have used telemedicine would use it again, according to a Business Group on Health report. And SHRM notes nearly 55% of employers believe telemedicine is an essential strategy for improving employee care and health outcomes.

Telemedicine’s popularity with health care providers, employers and employees points to its staying power. But even as it becomes mainstream, questions remain about how best to fit telehealth into an employee benefits strategy. To get started, let’s examine telemedicine’s advantages, cost savings and areas of greatest impact.

Advantages and cost savings

Over the past four years, telehealth has delivered on many of its promises. The benefits of telemedicine include:

  • Charging less expensive flat fees than in-office providers
  • Regularly resolving patient needs with one visit (A study found a 13.6% reduction in outpatient visits within 30 days of a virtual visit, reports Fierce Healthcare.)
  • Increasing access and affordability for mental and behavioral health issues
  • Increasing provider efficiency and reducing patient wait times
  • Minimizing time away from work by eliminating travel and wait time
  • Increasing access for employees with geographic and transportation challenges
  • Improving the diversity of providers available to employees
  • Reducing the number of visits to in-person offices, urgent care and emergency rooms

The last point creates significant savings for health plans. Avoiding unnecessary emergency room treatment can save health plans between $300 and $1,500 per visit, reports SHRM.

Areas of greatest impact

The industry news site Fierce Healthcare urges employers to cover telehealth. However, it recommends examining which areas of health coverage will be most impactful for your plan and employees.

For example, telehealth is most helpful for reducing unnecessary urgent and emergency care and treating mental and behavioral health challenges, skin issues and musculoskeletal diseases. It has been less effective in treating respiratory, circulatory and infectious diseases.

Integrating telehealth with in-person providers may produce the best results. Integration can increase follow-up care and adherence to medication or physical therapy.

If employees aren’t regularly seeing a primary care doctor or engaging in the traditional health care system, telemedicine can be an effective introduction to health care. This is true of all age demographics. Contrary to popular belief, older people use telehealth more than digital natives. According to the industry news site BenefitsPRO, 43.3% of individuals 65 and older have used telemedicine in the past year. This figure compares with 29.4% of 18- to 29-year-olds.

Finding the right solution

Telemedicine isn’t a one-stop shop. Finding the telehealth vendors, providers and solutions that meet your business, health plan and employee needs is critical.

First, SHRM says to project your health plan’s short- and long-term costs. Then compare potential savings and treatment options between in-person and virtual care. This process ensures you aren’t just shifting care from in-person providers to telemedicine solutions without saving money or improving health outcomes.

Ask vendors for data on:

  • Provider fees, accessibility and average wait times
  • Mental and behavioral health care, including for children and adult dependents
  • Diversity in practitioner age, gender and race
  • Integrating telehealth with in-person providers to enhance primary care, mental health treatment and chronic condition management

To further evaluate telehealth vendors and options, talk to your insurance broker or benefits adviser. They can help you examine telemedicine models, services and costs. They can also help you evaluate vendors’ capability to integrate digital resources with in-person care. Together, you can craft a plan to meet the needs of your employees and your bottom line.

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