Several large employers, including the Palm Beach County School District, Jet Blue Airways and the municipality of Kansas City, Mo., have installed telemedicine kiosks at their worksites to spare employees a trip to the doctor’s office--saving themselves--and their employers, money in the process.

These companies’ actions are indicative of a larger trend. Telemedicine, traditionally harnessed to connect patients in remote locations to medical providers at large medicine centers, is increasingly being offered to employees at the workplace.

A National Business Group on Health survey of 140 large employers found that 48% offered telemedicine benefits last year, growing to 74% this year. More generally, nearly three-fourths (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.

The use of workplace kiosks is the latest innovation and represents an effort on the part of employers and their insurers to further encourage telemedicine utilization among their employee populations.

“Employers and insurers see the kiosks as a pathway to delivering quality care, reducing lost productivity due to time spent traveling and waiting for care, and saving money by avoiding costlier visits to emergency rooms and urgent care facilities,” according to a recent report by Kaiser Health News.

Experimenting with kiosks

Health plans have traditionally provided coverage for employees to use the
services provided by telemedicine vendors. But Anthem and UnitedHealthcare have begun experimenting with kiosks at worksites. Anthem reportedly has installed 34 kiosks at 20 employers over the past 18 months and views them as an affordable alternative to employers operating an onsite clinic.

Some kiosks provide an enclosed booth that employees can enter for a private consultation. In addition to video screens, the facility may include screening devices like blood pressure cuffs, pulse meters and thermometers. “The instrument readings, pictures and sounds and seen and heard immediately by a doctor or nurse practitioner,” states the Kaiser report.

At the Palm Beach County School District headquarters, a nurse from a nearby hospital is on duty at the booth to assist employees with the diagnostic tools. Other kiosks, however, like those sold by American Well, are designed to be used independently by patients without additional assistance.

With a price tag up to $60,000 per unit, high-end kiosks aren’t likely to start popping up at every worksite. Where they are deployed, the economic justification will be driven by utilization rates. At the Palm Beach County School District, only 175, or about 9%, of the 2,000 employees at its headquarters, used the facility during the first year that it was made available. But the official in charge of the initiative predicts that percentage will grow as employees become more familiar with the service.

Telemedicine services are most appropriate for routine ailments, such as colds, sore throats, earaches, pink eye and upper respiratory conditions. Medical organizations and regulators have warned about overuse, cautioning that the convenience and cost savings could come at the expense of care quality.

In response to such concerns, the American Medical Association recently issued ethical guidelines for telemedicine. They call on physicians to be mindful of the limitations inherent in telemedicine-based patient interactions, and to ensure that they have gained sufficient insight into a patient’s condition prior to issuing any medical recommendations.,

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