Is Telehealth becoming the new norm in patient care?

The traditional trip to the doctor’s office may quickly become a thing of the past, as front-line employees struggle to find time to fit it into their schedules. Some think that they have to scramble for an urgent care center or spend an inordinate amount of time in a hospital ER waiting room when a situation requiring medical attention occurs on a weekend or in the late hours of the night.

Employees at Cleveland Metroparks, a park district in Ohio, have been offered an alternative solution via their employer’s telehealth benefit. One call to Teladoc, Metroparks’ telehealth provider, can diagnose urgent yet treatable ailments, or issue a prescription to a local pharmacy. Rather than being stuck in a waiting room for an extensive period of time, employees can get back to work and on with their day.

Someone in need of medical attention at night or on weekends may end up in the emergency room, where Healthiest You CEO Jim Prendergast says 66% of all such visits are deemed unnecessary, and the cost of care rises. For common ailments such as the flu, bladder infection, bronchial problems, or pediatric earache, symptoms can be explained over the phone or video, Prendergast added.

It’s estimated that 35% to 38% of people who visit the ER are exposed to another virus while there. This technology would help eliminate unnecessary trips and thus help keep people healthier. Almost 75% of all doctor, urgent care, and ER visits “are either unnecessary or could be handled safely and effectively over the phone or video,” according to statistics from the American Medical Association and Wellness Council of America.

In the absence of meeting face-to-face, telehealth still provides any necessary visual cues to diagnose or treat certain conditions through Skype or a similar video platform. The Journal of the American Medical Association found essentially no difference in the outcome of the care of 8,000 patients who used telehealth instead of an in-person office visit, says Prendergast.

Employers are starting to be open-minded about telehealth, which could save them more than $6 billion a year in health care costs, as stated in an analysis by Towers Watson. They also discovered that 37% of U.S. employers with a minimum of 1,000 employees expect to offer telehealth consultations by 2015, as opposed to 22% in 2014. An additional 34% of employers are considering it for 2016 or 2017.

According to Alan Roga, M.D., founder and CEO of StatDoctors, the value proposition of telehealth is that it can improve access to care and outcomes and bend the cost curve. “What telehealth has been able to yield,” he says, “is really reduced health plan costs, improved member satisfaction and reduced absenteeism, both hard-dollar savings, as well as soft-cost improvement.”

Another critical point is return on investments (ROI). At a cost of about $50 on the higher end of the fee scale, Roga says that telehealth represents “a significantly lower-cost alternative” to an urgent care or ER visit, which can typically range from several hundred to several thousand dollars, respectively. Despite it being more cost-effective, a recent study by the business information provider HIS, claims that the U.S. telehealth market is expected to reach $4.5 billion by 2018, an enormous leap from $440.6 million in 2013.

Despite this increasing demand in telehealth technology, there remains the fact that old habits die hard and there will be doctors and patients alike that will resist and prefer the old-fashioned face-to-face check-up. Regardless, it’s clear that telehealth is here to stay and continue its pace toward becoming the new norm in patient care delivery.

About the Author

248a5b4Kevin Murphy is a Vice President in WGA’s Employee Benefit Group. He manages, develops and maintains strong client relations, and consults with carriers on negotiable elements of underwriting to obtain the best plan designs at the most effective prices.