NEW ORLEANS — While the majority of employer-sponsored healthcare plans offered in the United States cover the cost of telemedicine, many employees don’t take advantage of the service.
Eighty-five percent of employers with 20,000 or more employees offer telemedicine, according to a survey by Mercer.
“We’re seeing an increase in telemedicine use, but employers should educate their staff about this service so both parties get the most out of this benefit,” said Lois Irwin, president of telemedicine company EZaccessMD, in a panel discussion during this year’s Benefits Forum & Expo, sponsored by Employee Benefit News and Employee Benefit Adviser.
Benefits professionals say their services can actually reduce sick days by providing more convenient and timely care. It’s a service that’s especially helpful to working parents and primary caregivers for the elderly, Irwin said.
“A parent taking off work for a sick child, or themselves, uses valuable paid time off traveling to the doctor’s office,” said Prentiss Taylor, vice president of medical affairs at Doctor on Demand. “A doctor’s visit takes about four hours, and a trip to urgent care can be even longer. But telemedicine puts care right at their fingertips through smartphones, tablets and computers.”
Most health insurance plans don’t require beneficiary co-pays to utilize telemedicine. And in most cases, all dependents qualify to use the service. Irwin said her employees are increasingly dispatched to attend to sick children, who are dependents on their parents’ health plans.
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While telemedicine consults typically respond to sudden illness and accidents, it also has the capability to monitor chronic conditions like depression, diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis and thyroid issues. Since many chronic issues require regular testing, like bloodwork, telemedicine offers a more comfortable alternative by conducting these tests at the patients’ home. The test results have roughly the same turnaround as those done at a medical facility.
Taylor estimated 16% of his clients use telemedicine for chronic care.
There are also telemedicine companies that specialize in senior care. Charlie Runyon, CEO of St. John’s Senior Services, said his company is often enlisted to check on elderly individuals when their family members express concern for their well-being.
“It’s harder for some seniors to get around, so many people appreciate that we’re able to bring care directly to their family members,” Runyon said. “It provides people with a real peace of mind knowing there’s always someone available to check on their loved one,”
Despite these successes, telemedicine hasn’t quite become mainstream. Irwin said she foresees that changing as more employers open the lines of communication with their workforce to discuss the full extent of their benefits.
“Ideas, products and services spread like viruses. I think we’re nearing the tipping point in telemedicine,” she said. “It won’t be long before everyone starts using this great service, in one way or another.”