Over the last several years, virtual health has grown exponentially in the United States, overcoming political hurdles, legislation, and medical societies fighting tooth and nail to stop its proliferation. Employers are starting to recognize the value of telemedicine as well, with 65 percent of companies offering telemedicine through their health plan.
The Dallas-Fort Worth Business Group on Health hosted a luncheon on the current and future state of telemedicine, bringing in a panel of experts on the topic. Moderator Eric Bassett, who is Senior Partner and the Central Market Business Leader for Mercer Health and Benefits, talked about how telemedicine is being implemented by small employers and those with 5,000 or more employees, but many of the middle market companies have been slow to adopt.
Nita Stella, the vice president of product and strategy at Teladoc, a leading telemedicine company, said that telemedicine is responsible for sees 2 million consults a year, comparing it to the transition to digital banking in the way it keeps most of us out of a bank. “Telemedicine is here to stay,” she said. In Texas, Senate Bill 1107 opened the door for telemedicine in 2017, but Stella is looking to see how it can move beyond primary care and into mental health, prenatal support, and other areas where access to healthcare can be difficult.
But connecting employees to telemedicine isn’t always straightforward. Stella discussed the disconnect employers and their employees often experience. In their studies, employers are more interested in biometric screening and diabetes measurement, while employees are concerned with weight loss and saving money. Creating systems that address all those needs is possible but not always easy.
Stella stressed the importance of a clear entry point, comprehensive clinical services, and integrating other providers when implementing telemedicine. Overall, when properly implemented, she said telemedicine should be able to simplify access, change behavior, reduce costs and connect the dots between the entire health ecosystem while improving outcomes. She highlighted increased efficiency for mental health appointments, which she said can result in a 45-day wait through normal avenues but take less than 5 days when using Teladoc.
Andrea Cockrell, the Administrative Services Manager for the City of Plano spoke about their use of telemedicine. She noted that city government is not always the quickest to adopt the latest technology, and that many employees are out in the city and don’t have easy access to technology throughout the day, but that their implementation had been relatively successful.
For Plano, the low cost of telemedicine visit (just $5) had lowered the barrier to use. Many panelists noted that the major challenge was getting an employee to use telehealth for the first time, and that they were often hooked on the service after the first visit. A low copay provides an incentive. She also said sharing testimonials can be a great motivator for others to join. “Word of mouth tends to go a long way; people don’t trust HR,” she said.
The speed (average visit was 5 minutes with a 7 minute wait time), quality (4.94 out of 5 stars) and impact (83 percent of appointments resulted in a prescription) of the program made it worthwhile for Plano, but they also experienced cost savings by avoiding urgent care or the emergency room. In one year, the city went from 300 to 550 virtual visits.
Bassett closed the program explaining how telehealth could help relieve physician shortages, especially in rural areas, but he isn’t sure if it will improve efficiency enough. “It is something we are all going to have to watch, especially in rural locations. That is where these things have the most promise.”