The novel coronavirus celebrated a birthday recently. It has been one year since the first patient in Hubei province, China was found to be infected with a brand new virus. Americans are preparing for a long, devastating winter, which seems like the inevitable end to a terrible year. If there’s one thing all Americans can agree on, it’s that 2020 was the proverbial “worst of times.”
It’s been a difficult year for benefits professionals as well. They had clear goals and plans in the first quarter that were all disrupted, discarded, and shifted in March. Some scrambled to help their workforces adapt to working from home. Others researched and implemented new physical distancing, protective equipment, and enhanced cleaning protocols for workers who can’t do their jobs remotely. They scrapped plans to roll out new programs and started tracking COVID-19 diagnoses and costs, employee mental health, and the deferred cost of postponed procedures and care.
Telemedicine has long been a staple of many employee benefit plans. We know that the majority of self-insured employers offer telemedicine programs as part of their standard benefits package. According to Willis Towers Watson’s recently released healthcare delivery survey, 84% of employers offer telemedicine as part of their carrier’s coverage, and just 3% don’t offer telehealth at all. The same study also found that 90% of employers increased their focus on telemedicine options during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 52% think this point of care will remain a top priority even after the pandemic.
All of this is good news for telemedicine vendors and programs, which have struggled with employee participation and engagement. Employers are clearly dedicated to making virtual visits a prominent part of their benefits plans, but the problem has historically been the patients.
Artemis Health has historically helped employer clients calculate “potential telemedicine utilization,” because actual utilization was very low. You can see in the chart above that the possible use and cost savings is enormous. If there is one silver lining in the pandemic of benefits teams, it’s that telemedicine is no longer just a “potential program” for members. It’s getting a big boost due to members who prefer to avoid in-person doctor’s visits.
The news and employer/plan communications have both convinced patients to seek virtual care in 2020. Many articles have promoted the availability and convenience of virtual visits, and employers have also done their part. According to national consulting firm Mercer, employers are taking this opportunity to educate members on their virtual visit options.
“Responses to a poll on Mercer’s US Health News website suggests that many companies (69% of respondents) have communicated directly with employees about using telemedicine specifically to limit trips to healthcare providers during this pandemic, and another 15% say that they have not communicated this, but the health plan/telemedicine vendor has done so.”
The boosted profile and numerous communications on telemedicine have clearly made a difference, right? Employers should be able to look at their data and see not just potential telemedicine utilization, but a big uptick in the number and prevalence of virtual visits in 2020. We decided to take a look using the Artemis Platform, which offers healthcare analytics solutions for employers. Here’s what we found.
These tables show the cost and number of visits in four categories: ER visits, primary care visits, urgent care visits, and telemedicine visits. The columns show a comparison from the prior period, which in this sample data is the prior period of May 2018-April 2019 compared to the current period of May 2019-April 2020. You can see that our telemedicine spend went from roughly $8,000 to nearly $70,000, with visits going from 402 to 1,415. This is incredible growth for this telemedicine program, and it only accounts for visits from the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Additionally, we looked more closely at telemedicine utilization and demographics.
It’s great to see members from all age bins and geographic regions participating in virtual healthcare options. This suggests that members are able to access these services and understand how to make the most of these programs. It’s also important to see telemedicine growing in popularity for health issues and concerns that would otherwise go untreated. Many patients have delayed or skipped care altogether out of fear of visiting a hospital during the pandemic. The CDC estimates that 41% of Americans have delayed or avoided care because of COVID-19, with an estimated 12% avoiding emergency care and 32% avoiding routine care.
Artemis’ analysis shows that telemedicine may be helping fill this gap and enabling employees and their families to see doctors safely.