The Picturephone – the first video phone – premiered at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York but failed to take off due to its high cost ($112-189 for a three-minute call!) and special wiring requirements. Fast forward to 2005 when Skype launched, and cell phones start to come standard with camera capabilities. And, now in 2021, you rarely meet a person who doesn’t have a smartphone in their pocket or bag.
Why the history lesson? Without this breakthrough technology almost 60 years ago, telemedicine (also known as telehealth) would not be possible today.
The first reference to telemedicine came in 1950 and continued to evolve through use by hospitals, radiologists, speech therapists and clinicians. There were many attempts that continued with the Picturephone but none that lasted despite the best efforts of the Jetsons and their video phone in 1962 foreshadowing the year 2062.
Because of the technology advances of the last 20 years, telemedicine is now a reality. In 2002, Teledoc launched, and in 2013 Anthem debuted its online care services. You can now see a healthcare professional from the comfort of your home (or anywhere). And, you can get your claim submitted in one fell swoop. A $50 copay or even a free visit is also a far sight better than $112 for a three-minute call on the Picturephone!
Enter the COVID-19 Pandemic
The timing of this evolution could not have been better when we entered the pandemic in early 2020. Americans were forced to “shelter in place”, and the world as most of us knew it suddenly flipped upside down. Online grocery ordering and delivery became even more popular, schools defined e-learning curriculums, and access to healthcare shifted.
Suddenly, going to the urgent care for a sinus infection was a bit taboo. Your primary care routine checkups were cancelled with reschedule dates pushed months out. Follow-up visits for past chronic diseases were postponed. Face-to-face interactions were too dangerous in stores, schools and even the healthcare setting.
Telemedicine came to our rescue.
Use and Benefits of Telemedicine
Consensus among employers, providers and utilizers is that telemedicine is great for the everyday issues like colds, pink eye, allergies, sore throats and even COVID-19 advice. Depending on the telehealth company used, you may even be able to seek mental health support. Some providers will even share your results with your primary care physician, making the link in healthcare records.
Telemedicine is convenient, saves you time and keeps you from spreading germs to others and vice versa. And, likely, you will come away with a good experience and a prescription – if that is what is appropriate. That was my experience for a sinus infection I had. From opening my app to picking up my prescription, it took about 30 minutes. Quick and easy.
Reducing Health Plan Costs
Telemedicine has also found its way into employer-sponsored health plan coverage. Most fully insured health plans are including telemedicine, and self-funded plans are using it as a lever for cost containment.
Your employees’ plan utilization is one area of opportunity. Telemedicine can help reduce unnecessary emergency room, minute clinic and urgent care visits that can be more expensive. In my 13 years of working with employers and educating their employees, I continue to be surprised that individuals plan a visit to the ER because it’s open when they need it and they think care will be given faster. Hence the word “emergency”. This is a perfect advertisement opportunity for telehealth and its benefits. It saves the health plan money by trading an expensive ER visit for a less costly telemedicine visit. Both you and your employee are happy – lower health plan costs and quicker care.
Telemedicine may be covered at 100% by your organization, and if you offer a high deductible health plan, the service is payable with health savings account (HSA) funds. Compare that to an urgent care visit average of $150 and the cost of most services at minute clinics being a range of $89 to $129. If we examine the cost of an emergency room visit, you’re looking at anywhere from $600 – $3,000 depending on the needs being cared for.
It doesn’t take a lot of button pushing on your calculator to add up the savings, especially on a large self-funded plan. By offering the option and educating your employees on the ease of care and cost savings, it could mean lower costs for your health plan.
Limitations of Telemedicine
While it has come a long way and I personally have appreciated sitting on my couch to see a doctor, telemedicine does have its limitations. To be clear, telemedicine is not designed to be a source of care during an emergency. Physicians are limited in what they can do. Things like looking into your ear or down your throat or feeling your throat to see if your glands are enlarged. Does your description of your symptoms effectively replace the physician looking in your ears and throat for visible signs? Can chronic disease care be done without ever stepping foot in a healthcare facility?
The in-person human experience is clearly missing, a gap that’s likely near impossible to fill. There are also certain treatments – like those for chronic disease – and examinations that are difficult to administer.
How do we bring the telemedicine experience (and cost savings) closer to home? Education is the key. And, with employees working remotely, this can be a challenge. Here are a few suggestions to leverage internal communication to create awareness and action.
- Make use of all-employee virtual meetings. Educate your team on how your health plan covers telemedicine visits. And, maybe even use one session to walk them through downloading the app and creating their accounts. I did this in a (face-to-face) Open Enrollment meeting and received amazing feedback! People don’t take the time (when they aren’t sick) to set up their accounts. When they do get sick, they don’t want to mess with it. Facilitate action and support questions. If a guest presenter helps make a message more meaningful, work with your consultant or health plan insurer to be your expert.
- Postcards to homes haven’t lost their luster and make it an easy connection to spouses also on your plan! Make it quick and easy to read with bullets and imagery. Postcards can easily be clipped to a to-do list or hung on the fridge as a reminder.
- Share stories! Ask your team to share their experiences. This helps to encourage others and show them that telemedicine really can work.
If there is anything we can take away from 2020, it’s that flexibility is our friend and innovation has helped us live our lives in new ways. Our healthcare is no exception to this learning. To get started adopting telemedicine for your employees, take a peek inside your benefit plan first! As an employer or consumer, there are many resources to support you.