Telehealth Continues Uptick: How Telemedicine is Improving Healthcare

Telemedicine Trends

One of the hottest trends in employee benefits for 2016 is telemedicine. According to Employee Benefit News it’s ranked as one of the top three industry trends that have emerged in 2016 thus far.

Telehealth technology gives employees and plan members the ability to connect with a physician via video conference or mobile device and receive diagnoses and prescriptions for a range of various conditions. Telehealth eliminates travel time and is a more convenient way for employees to deal with an illness than the traditional approach of taking time off work to schedule a doctor visit or wait too long to deal with the issue and end up in the emergency room.

From the clinical side it also appears telemedicine offers an effective solution. The Healthcare Performance Management Institute has found that 70% of doctor’s visits and 40% of ER visits could be handled with a telehealth visit. The report further indicates that when telehealth consults are utilized without a physical office visit there is a reduction in healthcare costs.

Savings may be realized because telehealth visits are often one-and-done with 91% of health outcomes being reported as good or better than traditional office visits, according to American Well research. Demonstrating that with telehealth services in place employees are more likely to access care sooner and be satisfied, avoiding escalation of an illness or repeat visits, which can lead to significantly higher costs of care in the long run.

Employers see the value and are embracing its use. According to a National Business Group on Health survey of 140 large employers, 48% offered telemedicine benefits last year, growing to 74% this year. More generally, 72% of hospitals currently offer telemedicine services, as do 52% of physician groups, according to a survey of healthcare executives by Avizia. And the American Telemedicine Association projects that the number of virtual doctor visits in the U.S. this year will to rise 20% over last year, to 1.2 million.

Telehealth growth coincides with the industry’s search for ways to provide care in a lower-cost setting and to improve the patient experience. It’s why some employers have already begun to take this employee benefit to the next level and are installing telemedicine kiosks in their workplaces.

Workplace kiosks are a collaboration between employers and insurers to encourage telehealth utilization for the delivery of quality, cost-effective care. Some kiosks provide an enclosed booth for employees to experience a private consultation. In addition to video screens, the facility may include screening devices like blood pressure cuffs, pulse meters and thermometers. These readings are to be immediately transferred to a doctor or nurse practitioner for analysis to provide a diagnosis or for monitoring of a chronic condition like high blood pressure, according to recent report by Kaiser Health News.

Continued innovation and technological advancements make clear telehealth services will expand in use and scope over the next several years. Employers too are predicted to continue uptaking this employee benefit and helping employees embrace this new way of accessing care.

Source: Employee Benefit Advisor. Is PEPM a cost effective method for accessing telehealth? August 2016. 

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  1. Telemedicine offers a real opportunity to deliver simple primary care at a low cost when patients need it. It’s an excellent alternative to using the ER or waiting to be fit into a a physician’s schedule. Employers must be careful, though, to ensure that a stand-alone telemedicine benefit doesn’t compromise employees’ HSA eligibility. A telemedicine plan integrated with a medical plan and charges adjudicated through the claims system shouldn’t impact HSA eligibility. A stand-alone plan that an employer purchases as an added benefit for employees must be designed so that employees and their covered dependents pay market prices for the service at least until they meet the statutory minimum annual deductible for an HSA qualified plan ($1,300 self-only/$2,600 family in both 2016 and 2017) or employees with mere access – not just those who actually use the service – may lose their HSA eligibility. IRS hasn’t provided specific guidance, but this interpretation is consistent with the Service’s interpretation on similar issues. Employers and benefits advisors should not be fooled into believing – as at least one telemedicine vendor asserts – that any telemedicine design is HSA-compatible because telemedicine is a “program” and HSA eligibility can be compromised by “benefits,” not “programs.” This statement is patently false.