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Telemedicine and Your Employee Health Plan

In today’s tech-savvy world, you can do almost everything online – buy groceries, rent movies, file your taxes, pay your bills, work from home – the list goes on! Advancements in technology have changed the way we do many things and how we interact with one another.

However, some might argue that technology is beginning to inhibit and even hurt human interaction. While this may be true in some instances (i.e., teenagers who are glued to their smartphones and miss out on school or family time), many feel that technology is serving to increase and improve human interaction in the healthcare field through telemedicine. If this convenient perk isn’t part of your company’s group benefits package, it’s time to learn how telemedicine works and why it’s becoming an attractive treatment alternative.

telemedicine-doctor-on-phone

What is Telemedicine?

The American Medical Association (AMA) defines telemedicine as the practice of medicine across distances via telecommunications and interactive video technology. Telemedicine can be delivered remotely through a laptop, mobile phone or any other device with an Internet and audio / video connection. Quite simply, telemedicine is a way to deliver healthcare through technology. The term “telehealth” is also used to describe this practice. It generally refers to a broader scope of remote healthcare services that include remote clinical services as well as non-clinical services such as continuing education, patient education and administrative support. According to the American Telehealth Association, telemedicine and telehealth can be used interchangeably.

Past to Present

One of the earliest uses of telemedicine can be traced back to Nebraska in the 1960s when a closed circuit two-way television link was established between The Nebraska Psychiatric Institute in Omaha and Norfolk Regional Center to conduct psychiatric video consultations.1 Other early examples of telemedicine include exchanging information via telephone lines, television and radio systems. Technology has evolved significantly since the first documented uses of telemedicine and has been one of the biggest drivers of its increased use over the past decade.

Currently there are three major types of telemedicine modalities:

Remote Monitoring: This form of telemedicine allows medical professionals to collect data from wearable technology or other technological devices. Medical professionals can manage chronic conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease or asthma. An example of this method includes glucometers that are connected to a cloud for patients with diabetes mellitus. Blood sugars can be monitored in real time by medical professionals to assist with managing their patients, identifying complications early and improving outcomes.

Store and Forward: This form of telemedicine involves the gathering or capturing of medical data (X-rays, MRIs, pre-recorded videos, etc.) and transmitting it to a doctor or medical specialist for assessment and diagnosis. This method is often utilized in rural areas where access to board-certified specialists or subspecialists can be limited or nonexistent.

Real-Time Interactive Services: Most commonly referred to as eVisits or VirtualVisits, this method of telemedicine involves the live interaction between patient and provider, utilizing audio / video conferencing technology to diagnose and treat the patient. Both the patient and the provider must be present in order to utilize this modality. This is one of the most common forms of telemedicine today.

Telemedicine to the Rescue

There are a number of benefits to telemedicine that make it an attractive healthcare delivery method under the right circumstances. Consider the following perks:

  • Accessibility: More than 80% of the U.S. population has Internet access, and nearly two-thirds of American adults own smartphones, making telemedicine easily accessible to the majority of people.2, 3
    The most common way to access telemedicine is through a group health plan, and many of the major insurance carriers have partnered with telemedicine companies (such as Teledoc, MeMD and Amwell) to offer this service. The accessibility of this healthcare delivery model can also create the opportunity for additional experts to consult on cases from various parts of the globe, providing patients with more thorough care.
  • Reduced Costs: Telemedicine is most often used in the treatment of common ailments, such as the flu, respiratory infections, sinus infections, allergies and headaches. These are non-emergent conditions for which a telemedicine consultation can facilitate treatment at a fraction of the cost to both the employee and employer. Approximately 70% of emergency room (ER) visits made by patients with employer-sponsored insurance coverage are considered unnecessary and avoidable, so utilizing this service could generate significant savings.4 Through telemedicine, employers have the ability to leverage technology to create a convenient and cost-saving benefit for employees as an alternative to higher-cost services for non-critical illnesses.
  • Convenience: Patients can be assessed from the comfort of their own homes, saving travel time and expense for both providers and patients. This can be especially beneficial for elderly patients who might have a difficult time leaving their homes. It is also a means of connecting those in rural communities with a variety of medical experts and specialists who they otherwise might have to travel great distances to see.

Get Dialed In

Due to advancements in technology in recent years, telemedicine has drastically evolved. It has become significantly more accessible because the Internet and smartphones are now found in the majority of homes throughout the country. Not only can it benefit employers by reducing health plan costs, but it can provide employees with convenient treatment alternatives when non-emergent conditions arise. Furthermore, it can connect patients with medical professionals who they may not have access to otherwise, which can help ensure that your employees are getting the best care for their ailments. If this healthcare alternative isn’t part of your current benefits package, contact the Group Benefits Team at SilverStone Group to learn how this option can help your organization.

1  Zundel, Karen M. “Telemedicine: History, Applications, and Impact on Librarianship.” January 1996. Accessed on May 16, 2016. 
2  “Internet Users.” InternetLiveStates.com website. Accessed on May 16, 2016.
3  Smith, Aaron. “U.S. Smartphone Use in 2015.” April 1, 2015. Accessed on May 16, 2016. 
4  “Truven Health Analytics Study Finds Most Emergency Room Visits Made by Privately-Insured Patients Are Avoidable.” April 25, 2013. Truven Health Analytics. Accessed on May 16, 2016.

This article originally appeared in the 2016 | ISSUE TWO of the SilverLink magazine under the title “Your Digital Doc Is In: Turn Up the Tech in Your Health Plan.” To receive a complimentary subscription to the SilverLink magazine, sign up here.

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