Does Telemedicine Work?

October 29, 2019

Telemedicine promises faster, cheaper health care. However, as an employer or as a potential patient, you may be wondering … does it work? It’s a new model, with many questions surrounding it. Here’s what we know about telemedicine and its effectiveness so far.

The Emergence and Appeal of Telemedicine

Telemedicine uses technology to deliver health care from a distance. A doctor or other health care provider can conduct consultations, make diagnoses, manage chronic conditions and determine treatment all from a remote location. Secure video and audio connections allow patients and providers to interact from different locations – possibly even different states.

Initially, telemedicine was primarily a way to deliver care to patients in remote areas. However, it is now being used as a convenient alternative for patients regardless of where they live. Patients who use telemedicine can avoid spending hours commuting to and from a doctor’s office. They may be able to get appointments in the morning before work or in the evening after work, making it easier to fit care into a busy schedule.

Telemedicine in Group Health and Workers’ Compensation

In just a few years, telemedicine has gone from a novel idea to a mainstream option for health care. According to the Willis Towers Watson 23rd Annual Best Practices in Health Care Employer Survey, 86 percent of employers offer telemedicine benefits. This is an increase of 11 percent from 2012.

According to Insurance Journal, telemedicine is not currently as common in workers’ compensation as it is in group health, but a paradigm shift may be occurring. Dr. Stephen Dawkins, medical director at Caduceus USA, told Insurance Journal, “On the cost side, and there needs to be more emerging data on this, but it’s clear that my clients are saving 50 percent on their workers’ comp costs. A huge, huge, huge cost savings.”

Calculating the Effectiveness of Telemedicine

While some issues are better handled in person, many health concerns and follow-up appointments are well suited for telemedicine. Medical providers must take caution to ensure that telemedicine is used for the right reasons, and that they have escalation protocol if they encounter a serious condition. They also need to be careful about how and when drugs are prescribed.

Consumer acceptance of telemedicine is growing. According to Accenture Consulting’s 2018 Consumer Survey on Digital Health, only 25 percent of people have personally received virtual care. However, 47 percent think it’s better to see a doctor quickly but virtually than to wait for an in-person appointment.

Another issue to consider is whether telemedicine is truly more cost effective than traditional care. While individual visits may be less expensive -- $79 instead of $146 for an office visit, on average – the total cost of care may actually increase according to Kaiser Health News. This is because only 12 percent of telemedicine visits replace in-person visits, while 88 percent represent new demand.

In other words, because telemedicine is so convenient, people use it when they would not seek out medical care otherwise. This is certainly something to consider when determining the overall financial impact of telemedicine. If these extra appointments prevent more complex medical issues, they may be worth it.

Want to add telemedicine to your plan?

If you’d like to learn more about adding telemedicine to your employee benefits offering, contact the benefits team at Heffernan Insurance Brokers.