What employers need to know about telehealth services

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Telehealth services aren’t new, but their usage has increased exponentially due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. NYU Langone health system saw urgent virtual care visits increase by 683% and nonurgent virtual care visits increase by 4,345% between March and April 2020, according to a study from the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association.

Huntington Ingalls Industries, a military shipbuilding company, has experienced this upward trend in usage firsthand. It initially launched its telehealth benefit using Teladoc in 2014, but employees weren’t very enthusiastic about it. Indeed, only 10% of employees had signed up for the service by 2019. But now, the number of employees using the benefit has jumped to more than 17% in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Employees with Huntington Ingalls Industries were initially skeptical of using the new technology for their healthcare needs. However, the current state of global affairs means more employers will need to utilize tele-services and employees will have to make this part of the new normal everyone is acclimating to.

“New technology lends itself to a slower uptick then some other services, especially with our population, where the mean age is 35 to 40,” says Amy Iveson, corporate manager of health and wellness strategy at Huntington Ingalls Industries. “Technology isn’t necessarily on everybody's mind at that point, so the uptick was kind of slow when we first started out with Teladoc, but because of the COVID pandemic we have moved more toward virtual visits.”

Telehealth services have helped Huntington Ingalls Industries reduce emergency room and urgent care usage. Among their employees who have used Teladoc, 36% would have gone to the emergency room or urgent care had they not used telehealth services, Iveson says.

Demand for telehealth services will increase by more than 60% in the U.S. in 2020, according to research from Frost & Sullivan, a management consulting firm. This increased demand is not likely to wane over time: the U.S. telehealth market is expected to experience a compound annual growth rate of more than 38% over the next five years, according to Frost & Sullivan.

Telehealth offers advantages, but must be priced fairly

Telehealth services can save time for employees while reducing costs for employers. Instead of making a trip to the emergency room or urgent care for non-emergencies, an employee can see a healthcare provider virtually. Additionally, such trips to the emergency room or urgent care tend to be more expensive, research from Society for Human Resource Management shows. Thus, employers can save money by reducing the number of emergency room or urgent care visits employees have.

“Employers are interested in using telehealth because it's a way of making primary care more accessible and reducing the use of the emergency room or urgent care, which tends to be more expensive than if someone can have a video or phone consult with a caregiver after hours or on the weekend,” says Suzanne Delbanco, executive director at Catalyst for Payment Reform, a company that works on behalf of employers and other healthcare purchasers to improve healthcare services while reducing costs.

Telemundo, a Spanish-language television network that is part of NBCUniversal, rolled out telehealth services to its employees via Crossover Health in May. Now, approximately 80% of Telemundo’s employees use Crossover Health’s virtual services, and the feedback has been positive, says Ashaki Rucker, SVP of human resources at Telemundo.

“They feel like the quality of care isn't being sacrificed, even though it is primarily virtual. The virtual nature is critical because people want to reduce time spent in a physical medical facility — given COVID-19, no one wants to be in those environments,” she says. “You don't have to leave your family and you can still get personalized care.”

See also: Redesigning your healthcare plan during coronavirus

To encourage employee adoption of telehealth services, companies should reduce or even waive associated copays, experts say.

Although many employers initially rolled out telehealth benefits with a copay, they realized that they had to subsidize or waive it entirely to get their employees to use the services, says Larry Boress, executive director of National Association of Worksite Health Centers, an organization aimed at helping employers maximize the benefit of their health centers, including virtual ones.

“Particularly low wage earners had difficulty justifying spending $40 or $50 for a phone call or a computer call, but with the employer subsidizing it or making it more available, they decided to use it,” he says.

Huntington Ingalls Industries has seen first-hand the benefit of waiving the copay for telehealth services. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the company decided to waive the $10 copay for using Teladoc, and will continue to do so until the end of the year.

“If that $10 copay was a barrier for some people, we wanted to remove that during the pandemic. It's been received favorably, and utilization of Teladoc for general medicine has been increasing since March when the pandemic started,” Iveson says.

See also: Mental health and telehealth apps come of age amid coronavirus crisis

Employees with Bowen Center, a community mental health center that provides services throughout northeast Indiana, have access to telehealth services from HealthJoy — without a copay. This benefit has helped Bowen Center attract and retain talent, says Cheryl Shepherd, director of human resources at Bowen Center.

“Trying to find talent is extremely hard. We have to be able to differentiate ourselves from others, and this is one of the tools that we have. It's an amazing benefit for our staff and really does help support them,” she says.

Bowen Center initially implemented HealthJoy in January and had 40% utilization within a month. Now, more than 70% of its employees use HealthJoy. Providing telehealth benefits to employees has helped Bowen Center as it rolls out its own virtual services, says Garrett Penn, benefits manager at Bowen Center.

“In the last few years, we've grown from having staff only in counties where we have a brick-and-mortar building to expanding into what we call mobile counties, where our staff there work remotely,” he says. “It's a business model that we do ourselves, and having a benefit like that for our own staff is a big thing.”

Telehealth expansion

As employees become more comfortable using the technology, they will want greater telehealth coverage. One way the pandemic has already contributed to this is by increasing the number of healthcare providers who offer their services virtually.

“In the past, typically if you wanted to use telehealth you were going to see somebody other than your normal provider. Now we're seeing providers who previously were not providing telehealth to their own regular patients investing in finding ways to do that so that they can continue those relationships and take care of their patients during the pandemic,” Delbanco says.

Now that the pandemic has pushed employees into using telehealth, the demand for new services will likely increase as well.

“This is going to be a huge area in the future. As more people get smartphones and are able to take advantage of the new technology, they're going to want more and more services, and I think the providers are going to make that available,” Boress says. “It's clearly not the wave of the future; the future is here.”

Offering more health services virtually can help further realize the benefits of telehealth by continuing to reduce costs for employers while saving time and expanding access for employees.

“Because of the pandemic, many more people have had a chance to try telehealth even if they didn't want to. The hope is that now that they've experienced it, it becomes part of the way they think about how to use the healthcare system,” Delbanco says.

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