Any medical treatment option that demonstrably lowers costs is attractive in this market, but one blossoming field has the potential not just to save money, but to change behavior.

“Telemedicine’s been around for over 100 years,” Dr. Alan Roga said at the Benefits Forum & Expo earlier this month. “There was a doctor 100 years ago who basically transmitted an EKG through a phone – that was the first telemedicine visit. This is a little bit different. Technology has evolved.”

Roga, the CEO of STAT Doctors, discussed how phones, computers and other ways “physicians [use] technology to treat patients remotely” have the potential not only to lower health care costs drastically, but to change way people see and seek medical treatment. Still, he pointed out, the root of this emerging field is deep in the past.

“What telehealth really is is going back to a house call,” Roga said. When providers include telemedicine options in their health plans, he says, those dial-in visits are “replacing the physical touching, and keeping to illnesses of low acuity,” but the trade is in-home convenience, along with “greater reach, improved efficiency and, really, improved coordination of care.”

“This model works because you can be seen when you want as quickly as you want,” Roga said, pointing out what an asset this is for a society in love with instant gratification. He considers telehealth benefits as a great “turn-key solution for the employer,” coming at no cost to them while providing the most accessible kind of care.

Perhaps the strongest case to be made for telemedicine, however, is its potential to keep non-life-threatening ailments out of emergency rooms and prompt care centers. The average cost of an ER visit hit $1,381 last year.

“ER visits have gone up 40% since 1996,” Roga said. “It’s not because ERs are doing such a great job, it’s not because they don’t; these people have nowhere else to go.

“Out of 136 million ER visits [in 2009], 20%, at least, can be treated virtually. And about 70% of what goes through an urgent care center or primary care doctor can be treated through telehealth as well.”

Roga said “we’ve got to come up with ways to improve access while focusing on quality and cost-reduction, and that’s what the technology allows.” He added that the participant response to telemedical services is overwhelmingly positive, with 91% to 98% approval ratings.

That jibes with what Esther Roja has seen. Roja works with Scottsdale Healthcare, a multi-facility Arizona health system that has instituted STAT Doctors’ services. Ninety-eight percent of Scottsdale’s workers who’ve tried telehealth would recommend it and use it again.

“Back in 2010, we had 256 emergency room visits per 1,000 [employees],” said Roja, who claimed hospital workers are particularly persnickety when it comes to treatment: “They don’t like generics, they like the emergency room – it’s a pretty tough group to try to control health care costs with.”

But since offering telemedicine consultations, Roja said, Scottsdale has seen all of the advertised advantages of the service: lower costs, decreased absenteeism and high wage-earner satisfaction. Roja said 97% of patients are treated in their first dial-in attempt, and the average response time is eight minutes.

“If you have the opportunity, at least look at [telemedicine], because you will save money,” Roja said.

Roga said lowering health care costs is its own reward, but getting people to change the way they think about getting medical treatment could have profound societal effects.

“What employers are seeing are not only high satisfaction rates, but really measurable ROI and a model that is now driving behavior,” he said.

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