24/7 physician access by phone or video has the potential to do great things for health plans and consumers. Getting a doctor’s help without waiting in a medical office is a great convenience, especially if you’re traveling or your primary care physician is unavailable. The challenge, however, is that telemedicine does not sell itself – it needs to be communicated over and over again if we want members to remember they have this great, easy-to-use benefit instead of driving to an urgent care center. Technology is great, but it won’t activate itself. People are creatures of habit and it takes a good deal of effort to change behavior. Low tech tactics like email reminders, flyers or refrigerator magnets may just be what the doctor ordered when trying to drive home the benefits of telemedicine.
Telemedicine offers a lot of potential for everyone – added convenience for busy families and lower costs than a traditional office visit. But as helpful as this service can be, it will only make a difference if it is used.
Low utilization is not unique to telemedicine. It’s a common problem with many new, well designed and well-intended health care services. Encouraging plan members to actually use new offerings is a challenge for employer groups, large and small. And while utilization is often higher in self-funded health plans, all employers need help turning talk into action. Here are a few ideas to consider:
It’s all about them – With health care consuming more of everyone’s income and attention, we all have a vested interest in our benefits. And while wonderful tools like telemedicine keep coming to the table, you need to look at these offerings from your member’s perspective rather than your own. Talk with your employees; ask if a service will help them and listen to their feedback. If it can add real value to your employee’s lives, utilization will follow.
Talk about health, not cost – Research indicates that when it comes to their health and wellbeing, there are many things members would prefer to hear about than fees and costs. A majority are interested in improving their health. It takes time, but focusing on current health risks and personalizing communications as much as possible will help members want to get more engaged.
Educate to empower – Transparency tools and online portals are no different than other modern advances. If people don’t understand them, they will never catch on. Like telemedicine, unless employees understand how to use it and when they can use it, they will never realize the benefit of having an experienced, board certified physician, with access to their medical records, available to help them 24/7.
While it seems that other new disruptive innovations, such as Alexa, catch fire overnight, they do take time. Since your employee communication budget likely pales in comparison to those driving consumers to Amazon, talk with your TPA about new ways to zero in on the needs of your employees. Doing so can lead to increased utilization and a happier, healthier workforce in 2018 and beyond.
If you haven’t interacted with a doctor by smart phone, email or webcam recently, you’ll be interested to know that the American Telemedicine Association reports that more than 15 million Americans received some kind of medical care remotely last year.
For those employed by a large company or living in a major metro area, it is common to view telemedicine as a virtual doctor visit or a substitute for an in-person office visit. The fact is that electronic communications are impacting the delivery of healthcare in many ways.
- Some doctors are consulting with one another to make critical decisions on heart attack and stroke victims
- Patients are using smart phones to relay blood pressure, heart rate and other vital signs to their doctors in order to better manage chronic conditions
- Virtual Care Centers are providing remote support to ICUs and ERs in small, rural hospitals where a physician may not be on site 24/7
Many question whether the quality of care is keeping pace with the rapid expansion of telemedicine, and state rules governing telemedicine are constantly evolving. At the same time, health plans and a growing number of members view the services as a convenient way to get medical care without leaving home or work.
The AMA recently approved new ethical guidelines for telemedicine, calling for participating doctors to recognize its limitations and ensure that sufficient information is available before making a clinical recommendation. With existing telemedicine providers expanding and major teaching institutions gearing up, there appears to be no slowdown in sight.