By A.J. Ghergich
The COVID-19 pandemic catapulted telemedicine from an underused, value-added offering in employee benefits plans into the safest, most secure and sometimes only means of accessing health care. Now, as businesses move to reopen, employers need to resist reverting to the traditional brick-and-mortar health care model — and its escalating costs.
Instead, companies large and small should lean into telehealth as a way to support employee wellness and productivity, reduce absenteeism and protect the bottom line.
The expertise that chief technology officers (CTOs) bring to workplace platforms and data security, coupled with their insights into how well employees will embrace available technology, make them a central player in selecting the right telehealth provider and promoting employee utilization, care and well-being.
A recent survey by the Business Group on Health found that 76% of the 95 large employers surveyed had taken steps to improve access to virtual care in response to the pandemic. Yet even before this crisis emerged, telehealth had been gaining acceptance. The same survey found that half of the companies made improving their virtual care offerings a priority before the pandemic hit.
“While employers have been implementing more virtual solutions in recent years, the pandemic caused the pace to accelerate at an astronomical rate,” said Ellen Kelsay, president and CEO of the organization, which advocates for large employers in health care policy. “Virtual care is now garnering growing interest and receptivity from both employees and providers who increasingly see its benefit.”
The marketplace now offers a wide array of telehealth and virtual wellness programs. This surge in demand has been met by a variety of companies in the space. Some big players include GoodRx, a startup that operates a telemedicine platform and a free website and mobile app to track prescription drug prices; Buoy Health, an AI-driven digital assistant that helps users diagnose themselves and obtain care; Two Chairs, a tech-enabled mental health and therapy services company; and Remedy, an urgent care platform which provides virtual and in-home treatment. Remedy, for instance, saw a roughly 1000 percent bump in business from July of 2019 to July of 2020
Getting buy-in for telehealth work relies on two important factors: selecting the right telehealth provider and encouraging employees to use the full spectrum of offerings. For CTOs, that means the following:
1. Ensure employees have the right technology. Virtual medicine works best when technology works well. Nothing gets in the way of a good patient experience like a bad internet connection. Most companies have minimum standards for smart devices and PCs, but if your organization has a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policy, some employees’ devices may not be up to snuff. Companies should encourage employees to upgrade their devices and help defray the relatively low costs for new devices or better internet connections for remote workers.
2. Help employees embrace virtual care. Not all employees have the same level of technological competence or personal comfort, which may make some reluctant to take advantage of a virtual visit. Work with your HR colleagues to help employees see the simplicity and value of virtual care. Share tips to prepare them for virtual visits, including how to ensure privacy, use proper lighting and share images of physical symptoms with their doctor.
3. Survey your workforce. Partner with your HR department to survey employees about how they use telehealth — or why they don’t want to use it. Did they have a good experience? Would they use it as a primary means to access medical care? Then, keep an open dialogue with your telehealth vendor and your employees to ensure your employees’ needs are being met and concerns are being addressed — because the goal is to better your employees’ health and wellbeing, they must be your first priority.
4. Get familiar with a few telehealth providers. Before you invest significant time and money into onboarding a telehealth provider, take them for a test drive. Ask each vendor how they handle privacy and data protection. How do they encourage utilization and optimize patient engagement? How do employees and employers rate them in terms of quality, affordability and patient satisfaction? Ask for references from other CTOs. No matter how sophisticated telehealth becomes, patients will always need physical exams, lab tests or X-rays. Look for a provider that helps employees transition seamlessly from a virtual visit to in-person care. It’s also a good idea to find out if the provider offers access to walk-in clinics, mobile lab testing and in-home care.
5. Embrace the future of e-health. Some large employers are exploring primary care models that replace fee-for-service, encounter-based care with a more comprehensive, patient-centered health management approach. Look for a provider that goes beyond the discrete virtual visit to deliver e-wellness and disease management programs. These programs should include efforts to regularly connect with employees via email and text messages to promote positive behavior changes and treatment adherence.
The coronavirus pandemic has pushed the once-niche telemedicine industry into the mainstream, creating a potentially lasting shift in health care. Companies have responded but will need to be even more creative, nimble and open in managing employee benefits. And CTOs will be at the center of this mix as health care offerings move rapidly to the next level.