As today’s employers strive to provide quality health benefits to their employees, they must keep digital health top of mind. Digital health innovations such as telemedicine have proven to be highly effective ways of delivering top-notch care while keeping costs down. And the coronavirus pandemic has only accelerated this shift to a high-tech healthcare landscape.
So what are the digital health trends for 2021? How has the pandemic affected those trends? Will those trends continue once the pandemic has subsided? How will these trends affect employee health benefits? And how can employers utilize healthcare data to make the best use of digital health in this new age?
We explore these questions below.
Although the technology for telemedicine has been available for a number of years, its adoption within the healthcare industry had been fairly slow before the coronavirus pandemic. But with the onset of COVID-19 and the sudden need for mass social distancing, the use of telemedicine exploded. It now appears this trend will continue past the pandemic.
The shift to telemedicine began in March 2020, when the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced they would be expanding coverage for telehealth services in response to the pandemic. The American Medical Association (AMA) then stated its support for that measure, while also encouraging private payers to remove any coverage limitations on telehealth services.
Looking back, we can see how quickly telehealth was expanded nationwide. According to a research study conducted of almost 17 million patients with commercial or Medicare Advantage insurance, approximately 30% of outpatient visits were telehealth visits in the early months of the pandemic, and the weekly number of telehealth visits increased 23-fold in that time period.
Employers also spurred this trend within their employee benefits packages. One poll found that 69% of employers had encouraged employees to use telemedicine during the pandemic. Another 15% of employers reported that, although they had not communicated with their employees about telehealth, either their health plans or telemedicine vendors had done so.
While the shift to telemedicine during the pandemic was based on a sudden need for “socially distanced” health visits, the question still remains: do employees and patients actually like telemedicine? The answer thus far appears to be a firm yes.
A May 2020 survey of 2,000 U.S. adults found that 42% reported using telehealth services since the COVID-19 outbreak. Of the patients who liked using telehealth services, their reported reasons varied as follows:
With the exception of avoiding exposure, all these reasons for favoring telemedicine will outlast the pandemic. Flexibility and convenience are positives for employees. Lower costs of telehealth are a bonus for employers. Telemedicine appears to have gained a permanent foothold in the realm of employer-provided healthcare.
For years, employers have tried to boost telehealth and promote these benefits programs to employees. It’s finally working.
While the sudden onset of the pandemic might have prompted providers to adopt telehealth quickly, enough time has passed that they are now growing proficient with it. Hospitals and providers are now exploring how they can utilize virtual care on a long-term basis. The focus is on how providers can make telemedicine convenient, high-quality, and accessible, even in a post-pandemic world.
One strategy for providers will be the mix of virtual care with in-person care. The benefits of these “hybrid care” models were summarized by Peter Antall, MD, Chief Medical Officer at Amtech, a healthtech company specializing in telemedicine. In an Amwell white paper, Dr. Antall states that hybrid models give providers different ways to interact with their patients. They can give providers alternatives to having patients spend precious time sitting in clinic waiting rooms or occupying exam rooms.
An example of this approach is M Health Fairview, a 10-hospital, 60-clinic health system based in Minneapolis. The organization quickly adopted telemedicine as a short-term response to a public health crisis. However, the health system did not revert back to in-person services when the initial surge passed. Instead, they performed a specialty-by-specialty assessment, determined where services could be provided virtually, and made telehealth a permanent component of their healthcare delivery model.
For employers providing employee healthcare benefits, they will need high-quality healthcare data to ensure a sound telemedicine strategy. The following are just a few considerations for employers on this front:
A robust data analytics platform can help employers track these key performance indicators for telemedicine. Here’s an example from the Artemis Platform, where it’s easy to compare results from different types of visits.
Wayfair is an example of an employer that effectively utilized healthcare data to enhance their employee benefits. During their open enrollment period, the 15,000-employee company wanted to focus member education at the job sites where it was most needed. Using the Artemis Health platform, Wayfair analyzed many key metrics by office location, including ER and urgent care usage, telemedicine utilization, and member out-of-pocket costs. The company was then able to implement some key tactics, such as installing telemedicine kiosks at locations with high ER/urgent care usage.
The future of employee health benefits is directly impacted by the rise of digital health and telemedicine. But to navigate these changes, employers will need to effectively access and interpret their healthcare data. Those that can do so will be able to ride these digital health trends to success.