More than half of employers are now offering telemedicine services. The services, such as MDLive and Teledoc, offer employees access via telephone and video to board-certified physicians 24 hours a day. They provide diagnosis and prescriptions, if needed, for simple ailments like sinus and ear infections, allergies, flu and skin irritations.
While more than 70% of large companies are offering these services, the National Business Group on Health reports that only 3% of employees are using them. That’s despite generally positive reviews and the benefits telemedicine offers for both employers and employees.
Employee savings are appealing
Telemedicine visits can be a real time- and cost-saver for employees. These services facilitate diagnosis and treatment from home or the office at any time of day, which can reduce absenteeism. Many parents find the remote visits much easier for sick children, too. They save travel and school attendance time and keep the children from being exposed to other sick patients.
The average cost for telemedicine visits runs from $40 to $75. About 10% of employers subsidize them at 100%. Most require employees to pay out of pocket until they reach the deductible. Either way, the cost is often less than the price of an in-person visit.
Direct employer savings are minor
Depending on the health plan design, telemedicine visits can save employers a few dollars over a traditional visit. But those savings can be quickly offset by the annual per-employee cost.
Indirectly, however, the employer can benefit in several ways:
- Absenteeism can decline. When employees are able to quickly resolve a minor health issue, they’re less likely to get sicker and miss work. Employees also will miss less work time traveling to the doctor and waiting to be examined.
- With convenient diagnosis from home, employees will be less likely to come to work sick, where they can infect their coworkers.
- Employees who use telemedicine are generally satisfied. They view the service as a perk that enhances the value and attractiveness of their health plan. Employers also can use this as an inexpensive plan enhancement at a time when they might be raising deductibles or premiums.
Compare services and cost structures
When choosing a telemedicine provider, you’ll want to consider several factors.
- Robust features. Make sure your provider offers both desktop and mobile apps with video conferencing for real-time diagnosis.
- For self-insured plans, expect to pay a flat rate per employee, regardless of how much the service is used. For example, a company with 500 employees might pay $2.50 annually per employee. For insured plans, many larger carriers offer telemedicine services as part of their bundle, so the employers’ costs are less transparent.
- Account servicing. Ask questions about the frequency of consultations and speed of issue resolution. Also look at the communication materials available and the level of effort the provider will make to ensure your employees are informed about the service.
- Data sharing. Find out how much data you’ll be getting from the provider. At the minimum, you should expect quarterly utilization reports. You also may look for aggregated data about diagnosis trends, which can help inform your employee wellness efforts.
Communication is the key
So how many times have you read a post like this with a heading about communication? That’s because communication is always a critical component of any benefit – especially one as new as telemedicine. Employees must be able to recall this subject – and the telephone number or website – right at the moment they need it. And the only way to achieve that is constant, repetitive promotion. Consider promoting the service separate from the health plan. Don’t forget to use multiple media, too, from emails and fliers to posters and postcards. People recall messages best when they receive them in diverse ways over time.
Don’t let telemedicine replace the annual physical
For all its advantages, telemedicine is not a replacement for a relationship with a primary care physician. Having an annual checkup is still the best way to monitor indicators of chronic health issues – the ones that cost employees and employers the most. So, even if you have a strong telemedicine offer, we suggest continuing to promote – and even incentivize – the annual physical. If you’re looking for strategies, we’re here to help.
By Mark Lamberz, SVP, Benefits Production Leader
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