Along with the many other sweeping changes facing our world in the wake of COVID-19, one notable shift important to employers is the rise of virtual care. Unfortunately, references to virtual care, in the press and elsewhere, are often overlapping or short-sighted in their true meaning. The buzzwords are everywhere: telehealth, tele-pediatrics, telemedicine, tele-pysch – which adds to confusion for employers and patients alike. A primary reason for this confusion is that getting virtual care isn’t limited to a single service. Most commonly called “telemedicine,” virtual care is an emerging set of new healthcare services. Let’s start with a general definition.
- Telemedicine: a range of activities that involve the remote evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of a patient by a healthcare provider in a virtual setting (which can be audio or video), as opposed to treatment received during a physical visit to the doctor’s office.
We wrote recently about the Emerging Trends in Employee Benefits which included the increased accessibility and usage of telemedicine. Virtual appointments are a fantastic alternative to an in-person appointment during a pandemic as patients can still receive consultation on their symptoms and receive a referral for various tests without potentially exposing everyone in the healthcare facility to a contagion.
While many view the virtual care format as a fix geared for the pandemic, the healthcare industry is evolving to encompass all types of care and looks to be a permanent mainstay in healthcare moving forward. In turn, this will greatly impact employers as they evolve their employee benefits plans.
We certainly expect to see telemedicine used more commonly across the board, but specifically the growth of its use for care management for chronic disease is notable. As services continue to expand, you can imagine all sorts of applications for remote monitoring for conditions such as high cholesterol and diabetes. This uptick signals a movement away from one-off treatments and towards a managed care model allowing patients to report in to their doctor on their treatment without the hassle of regularly going to a brick and mortar facility. A study of Doctor On Demand data by Harvard Medical School and RAND Corporation suggests that behavioral health issues and chronic conditions were responsible for the largest increases in telehealth utilization during the pandemic. Additionally, the continued advancements in wearable technology with features such as heart rate sensors, blood sugar monitors, and more, yield more accurate data which will further improve upon the effectiveness of virtual care methods.
Another major factor in the long-term increase in telemedicine is the recent relaxation of federal regulations relating to healthcare by the US Department of Health and Human Services. This allowed doctors to offer telehealth more quickly with less concern about HIPAA privacy issues, however moving forward, telehealth providers will need to put security and encryption at the top of their priority list as the relaxation of regulations is reversed.
Another element of virtual care seeing exponential growth is “tele-psych.” In April 2020, when the pandemic was beginning, the 10 top mindfulness apps (such as Calm) saw an increase of more than 2 million downloads compared with January. With countless people experiencing anxiety and depression amplified by the pandemic and quarantining, many telehealth providers have begun to offer virtual mental health (or telepsych) resources to their patients including everything from licensed counselors to psychiatrists.
HR professionals are responding to the upheavals of 2020. Employers have stepped up their well-being and mental health benefits and ushered in an unprecedented growth in the availability and use of telemedicine. This growth of options, combined with the evolving technology surrounding telehealth and the accessibility to the average person shows that virtual care is here to stay.
We have evaluated many of the solutions in the marketplace for our clients, and our team can make a recommendation to best suit your needs. If you’d like to learn more about adding a virtual care element to your employee benefits program, please give us a shout.