Telehealth On The Rise

In case you’ve been wondering, the evidence is in. Telehealth is truly taking off.

The evidence?

Nearly all large companies now offer some type of employee access to telehealth services.

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Bloomberg BNA had a recent article reported on the latest survey from the National Business Group on Health (NBGH), which each year conducts a survey of employers. According to NBGH, most large employees (those with 5,000 employees or more) will be offering some type of employee access to telehealth services by 2017. And by 2020, that percentage will grow from 90 percent to 97 percent. That’s quite a rise since 2012, when only 7 percent of employers provided this type of access.

While uncertainties remain about how telehealth affects employer health-care costs, many large companies offer their employees access to telehealth as part of their “soft benefits,” Allie Wils, director of health policy for the ERISA Industry Committee (ERIC), which advocates for large companies on benefits issues, told me. Soft benefits are related to employee satisfaction and recruitment, which are difficult to measure, she said.

“Employees want access to care when and where they need it and telehealth can enable that,” Wils said. “Cost-effectiveness is important but offering benefits people care about is important, too.”

Admittedly, these numbers are for the most part driven by insurers that are increasingly “offering access to telehealth services.” Nonetheless, and quite dramatically, almost one-third of these large employer reported in 2016 that they are “contracting directly with a telehealth vendor to offer the service to their employees.”

Healthcare providers are increasingly adopting telehealth to improve access to care.

In late August, Health Data Management published a wide-ranging article that described a number of different healthcare facilities that are deploying telehealth technology. 

Hospital systems are elevating the technology to a vital place in their care continuum, to not only gain better clinical outcomes but also to manage costs in a fixed-revenue business environment.

One example:

Nine years after Pittsburgh-based UPMC initiated telemedicine with a remote stroke response program, it now operates 62 telemedicine-related services, in specialties as varied as maternal fetal medicine, endocrinology, and colorectal and breast surgery. Satisfaction is high; quality levels are no different from in-person interaction, says Andrew Watson, MD, vice president and medical director of telemedicine, who has done 500 tele-consults himself. “It just absolutely works, and it makes sense.” A second generation of initiatives, launched within the past year, is pointedly targeting cost avoidance.

Success stories like UPMC’s are translating into increasing acceptance. The American Telemedicine Association has found that 49 states “now cover at least some aspects of telemedicine in their Medicaid programs, and 31 states have rules on parity in healthcare services—payers have to offer coverage of telemedicine-provided services that are comparable to that of in-person services.” There are also signs that Medicare, which has been reluctant to adopt telehealth, may be coming around, as well.

Telehealth is helping enable a shift from costly inpatient care to less-costly outpatient care.

Fierce Healthcare wrote recently about how the nature of healthcare is changing, with new models for healthcare delivery emerging. These include “bedless hospitals” that will offer everything other than overnight beds. Telehealth is also playing a major role in the shift to providing less costly care:

Mercy Hospital’s Virtual Care Center in Missouri places video calls to patients, saving time and money even for patients with complex, chronic conditions, according to CNN Money. It's especially beneficial for patients who may live far from the nearest healthcare facility. "You have to break that whole clinic kind of thinking with nursing: 'Oh my gosh, he needs to go to the ER," Dan Milner, a navigator for the care center, said. "[There's] an antiquated idea of how people think healthcare should be."

We may even see a redefinition of the word “inpatient” to mean care that’s providing in the patient’s own home!

There’s plenty of other evidence out there that tells us that telehealth is on the rise. And some of that evidence is coming directly from our customers, companies that are embracing emerging technologies to help provide better and more affordable healthcare delivery.

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