Here’s how to make telemedicine work

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Telemedicine is often seen by some industry insiders as the great panacea for healthcare — it’s convenient, can reduce costs and can help employees avoid long doctor wait times. But not all statistics support that notion.

While roughly 70% of large companies provide telemedicine coverage, only 3% of employees use it, according to the National Business Group on Health.

So do low utilization rates mean telemedicine is all hype and no value? Not so, according to Matthew Herrera, assistant vice president of strategic partnerships at benefit provider Careington International.

“The value is absolutely there,” Herrera said Wednesday during the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plan’s Health Benefits Conference and Expo. “[Telemedicine] just needs to be rolled out correctly.”

One problem is that telemedicine offerings are often “buried in the health plan,” he said. “We have to do a better job engaging employees, or maybe offer it as a separate benefit. You might see more usage that way.”

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The bottom line? It’s time for employers to ramp up their efforts.

The missing piece of the puzzle is employee education, Herrera said. If employers aren’t advocating for the healthcare strategy, they shouldn’t be surprised by its lack of success.

“You have to train your employee to use it,” he said. “You have to get them to log in and consult with a doctor when they aren’t feeling well.” Telemedicine, he said, is ideal for treating non-emergency conditions such as sinus conditions, pink eye, rashes, allergies, cold and flu and nausea.

See also: Employers, insurers work to knock down barriers to telemedicine

Employee handouts, newsletters and video demos about telemedicine can help bridge the information gap, Herrera said. He also suggested benefits managers send e-blasts to employees during flu season to remind them they can use telemedicine for flu-like symptoms.

Companies also should make sure they have the right partner for their telemedicine offering, he said. Services should include a comprehensive mobile app to include services such as remote patient monitoring and live video conferencing for real-time diagnosis. Mobile apps will grow in popularity and help increase telemedicine utilization rates, Herrera said.

The benefits of telemedicine, Herrera said, are obvious: Employees get 24/7 care, can access a doctor when they are traveling and overall enjoy easier access to physicians. It also allows them to skip long waits at the doctor and often saves them money because fees are “usually lower cost than a doctor copay.”

Meanwhile, employers benefit from reduced healthcare costs.

“You’ll save money when [employees] have a telemedicine consult rather than them going to the ER with the flu when it’s 1 a.m.,” he said, noting the extra benefit of reduced employee absenteeism.

Companies can reduce worker absenteeism even more by adding a dedicated room in the office for employees to use for telemedicine consults — a trend Herrera said he expects will increase. Dental and vision-specific telemedicine services also will grow in the future, he said.

“If you are using a mobile app, educating employees, having a remote station in the office … your success stories will be through the roof,” Herrera said.

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