Telehealth benefits gain wider acceptance

Telehealth benefits gain wider acceptance

BR Image (Head Shot)With the increasingly busy and complicated lives of America’s front-line employees, one of the cornerstones of health care – the old-fashioned visit to a doctor’s office – no longer easily fits into most workers’ schedules. Worse, when an issue requiring personal medical care occurs on a weekend or in the middle of the night – an employee’s daughter develops pink eye, for instance – employees feel they might have to scramble for an urgent care center or face the prospect of hours and hours in a hospital ER waiting room.

For workers at Cleveland Metroparks, the oldest park district in Ohio, employees have been spared some of the inconvenience of in-office visits by using their employer’s telemedicine benefit, also known as telehealth. A simple call to Teladoc, Metroparks’ telemedicine provider, can provide a diagnosis for urgent-but-easily treatable ailments, issue a prescription to a local pharmacy and get workers back on the job, rather than stuck on a waiting-room chair.

“It just engages employees to another level when they have that type of service at their fingertips,” says Harold Harrison, the organization’s chief human resources officer and overall benefits manager.

Burgeoning growth

The U.S. telemedicine market is expected to reach $4.5 billion by 2018 – a massive gain from $440.6 million in 2013, notes a recent study by business information provider HIS. In addition, a recent Harris Poll found that 64% of the 2,019 U.S. adults it surveyed are willing to have doctor visits via video telehealth.

Employers are now warming up to the concept, which could save them more than $6 billion a year in health care costs, according to Towers Watson analysis. The consulting firm also found that 37% of U.S. employers with at least 1,000 employees expect to offer telemedicine consultations by 2015 compared with 22% in 2014 and another 34% are considering it for 2016 or 2017.

Jim Prendergast, CEO of Healthiest You, describes telemedicine as remote or digital access to care that’s provided “in an efficient, timely and cost-effective manner” compared with traditional delivery systems.

Someone who requires immediate medical attention on weekends or late in the evening obviously doesn’t have the luxury of scheduling an appointment with a primary care physician or most urgent-care centers. So they end up in the ER, where Prendergast says 66% of all such visits are determined to be unnecessary and the cost of care skyrockets.

What’s more, he says nearly 75% of all doctor, urgent care and ER visits “are either unnecessary or could be handled safely and effectively over the phone or video,” citing statistics from the American Medical Association and Wellness Council of America. A study of 8,000 patients who used telehealth instead of an office visit found virtually no difference in their outcome of care, according to The Journal of the American Medical Association.

A major U.S. employer that has seen success with its telemedicine offering is Discount Tire, the world’s largest tire and wheel retailer. A 2012 program initially piloted by about 600 of the company’s employees was rolled out to all 6,700 full-timers two years later.

“In my opinion, it definitely is a cutting edge medical benefit to access board certified emergency room physicians,” says Lynda Wilson, the head nurse administrator at Discount Tire who manages the company’s executive wellness benefits program.

“Telemedicine just creates a great vehicle to access a physician telephonically, electronically or through video. Your wait time is anywhere from one to eight minutes. You don’t have to go to an emergency room. You don’t have to get exposed. You don’t have to pack up the kids. You can do it when you’re working. It helps productivity.”

Wilson has seen a number of non-urgent sinusitis and pharyngitis diagnoses, which can be related to the flu. “We do have a big flu-prevention program in our company, so it’s valuable to see that,” she says. “We also look at the wait time because we want to make sure this is an efficient program for our people.”