Health & Wellness

Virtual Care Matures and Becomes Key Component of Employee Benefits

Virtual care has been increasingly accepted as a means of efficient delivery of health care services. Events like the COVID pandemic accelerated its acceptance and revealed significant opportunities for employers to leverage virtual care to help employees manage chronic conditions while also reducing the employer’s benefit plan costs. — By Malibu Kothari

During the pandemic, there was major growth in the number of people using telemedicine (virtual care) services. In fact, Mercer’s National Survey of Employer Sponsored Health Plans found that employer telemedicine programs experienced a 4,000 percent growth in utilization year-over-year in March 2020.

Though prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic as a means of safe delivery of health care services, it has become apparent there is an opportunity to expand on utilization of virtual care to increase health care services delivery efficiency, employee access for management of chronic medical conditions, the ability of people to reach the right care at the right time, and access to counseling services, and all while lowering employer benefits costs.

Closing the Gap of Perceived Organizational Support
In a society where convenience is enabled by technology, virtual health care is an ideal system. It is expected to remain a booming industry over the coming years and will experience sophisticated improvements that only add to its effectiveness. Artificial intelligence (AI) is already used, but the more data added, the more accurate the algorithms and the more capable of the system to offer higher level advantages and services.

Mercer’s research on employer and worker perspectives on the role of digital innovation in health services found that employers should invest in digital health to build a culture of well-being and to remain competitive in the labor market. Some of the advantages virtual care offers include the ability to design solutions delivering the greatest value to the workforce and the ability to meet a desire of workers to access patient-centered solutions that are convenient and customized. The research found there is a gap in employer perspectives that say their organization cares about employee mental health and well-being (70 percent) and worker perspectives that employers really care (50 percent). The belief an employer cares is called perceived organizational support, and health technology can make a significant contribution to closing the gap.

For example, mental health counseling through telemedicine enables employees to access the services at their convenience and in total privacy. People with mental health issues are more likely to seek help when they do not have to take time off from work or are assured of confidentiality. People with chronic health conditions, like diabetes and cardiovascular disease, can benefit greatly from virtual care because they can get help managing their conditions on a regular basis. Virtual care solutions can help employees with at-home physical therapy programs and enables check-ins where a therapist can assess things like range of motion improvements.

Virtual care technology involves more than just telemedicine, the virtual interaction of a medical professional and patient. Virtual care is a much broader concept. Employees can wear remote monitoring devices that enable physicians to monitor patients 24/7, cutting the need for high cost of hospital stays. Remote imaging is possible through the combination of telehealth and AI, enabling rapid collaboration between medical providers. Virtual care programs will include online medical programs, crowdsourcing platforms for physicians, digital therapists and wellness programs.

Making the Business Case
There is a strong business case for digital health programs. The Mercer research mentioned earlier found 27 percent of workers are much less likely to leave the business if their employer sponsors digital health solutions. Health care cost reductions are possible but at this point, the cost structure for virtual health solutions is usually the same as it is for in-person medical care (i.e. patients and insurance companies pay the same amount for telemedicine as they do for in-office visits).

It is expected the cost structure will evolve as more employers add virtual care programs. In the long run, more employees will be able to opt for less expensive care at home. Online programs will even help some employees prevent the onset of diseases, like diabetes due to obesity. Healthy employees are more productive and engaged. Employees will file fewer health insurance claims and reduce the cost of their care which passes on to the employer.

Deloitte research found that health care delivery and health management will look very different by 2040. Half of a group of executives surveyed believed that at least one-fourth of all outpatient care, preventive care, long-term care, and well-being services would be delivered virtually by 2040. Fifty-four percent of the executives indicated 28 percent of wellness and well-being care services would be virtual.

Some employers have discovered that their workforce is made up of groups of people at different stages of acceptance of virtual care. Some employees will rapidly embrace it while others are wait-and-see or highly opposed. As more digital natives join the workforce, this will eventually become a moot point.
The virtual care industry has many opportunities for growth through technology innovation. The prediction is that in-person office visits will be an exception, oncology patients will do virtual check-ins and be remotely monitored, musculoskeletal issues causing severe pain will be managed through digital physical-therapy programs to reduce the need for surgery and opioids, and provider-to-provider consultations will become more cost efficient and efficient. This is just the beginning of a transformed health services delivery system.

Selecting the Right Provider
Aetna’s employer guide to selecting the best virtual care provider from among the many available today offers suggestions for ensuring a good choice is made. Employers need to identify goals and objectives, which range from reducing costs to providing the most complete health care package to employees. The virtual care system needs to fit into the employer’s health care system which includes insurance, existing onsite services, and employee assistance programs.

The virtual care provider should provide services aligned with the company’s goals, like reducing costs, absenteeism and presenteeism. Also, it is important to do due diligence to get the assurance the virtual care program is sustainable and practical, the data will be secure and the provider is financially stable. The provider should be prepared to successfully adapt to new technologies, too.

Some employers have discovered that their workforce is made up of groups of people at different stages of acceptance of virtual care. Some employees will rapidly embrace it while others are wait-and-see or highly opposed. As more digital natives join the workforce, this will eventually become a moot point.

For now, it is important to vigorously promote the virtual care program to get the naysayers onboard.