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  • Writer's pictureMark Roberts

Doc Talk!

Physicians are busy people. They usually are seeing patients non-stop during office hours, and often have little time to spare between appointments. However, one key aspect of some practices is the time set aside to talk with individuals via telephone or video chat for a telemedicine conference with someone who is unable to come to a physical office for a healthcare consultation.

Organizations, including employers of all sizes everywhere, are looking for ways to increase profitability and reduce costs when it comes to health care expenses, especially if they are self-funded. Even individuals want to know how they can cut expenses when it comes to seeing the doctor or having to make non-urgent unnecessary trips to the emergency room or urgent care clinics. Many experts hope 2023 turns out to be a year in which patients gain greater access to health data and tools to enable them to play a bigger role in managing their own health.

One of those tools is telemedicine. The buzz that was wellness is now all about telemedicine, or telehealth as it is often called in the medical industry. One of the fastest growing, most popular products, telemedicine can deliver a lot of benefits for not a lot of money, to consumers, to employers, and to the medical community in general.

When all that’s needed may be a simple diagnosis for a non-narcotic prescription, a phone call to a physician at no cost to the employer and the employee is the least expensive way to handle the event.

By simply using a validated 24/7 telephonic service to reach a medical doctor for these needs to avoid taking time off from work and incurring billable expenses for an office visit will save both the employer and the worker valuable time and money. Think of the money and time saved by making a simple phone call or having an email or video chat with a doctor for non-urgent health needs.

A great way to help reduce healthcare costs is by using options that will decrease the need to see a primary care physician or health care provider for simple health issues like the flu, sore throats or other nominally irritating medical needs. Certainly for more serious health care matters, employees should seek medical attention when the need arises. However, telemedicine is now a hot commodity in health care and probably one of the fastest growing healthcare tools in the market today. The Covid pandemic that began in 2020 catapulted telemedicine to the forefront of patient healthcare way beyond anyone's expectations.

According to the Baltimore Sun, the technology is available and relatively inexpensive. It's the regulatory hurdles that present the challenge. Because of licensing restrictions, specialists might have trouble treating and prescribing medicine for patients they are examining electronically across state lines. Also, some states require insurers to cover telehealth care. Telehealth equipment can be installed in physicians' offices, small clinics, hospitals and even workplaces for from $10,000 to $100,000. Such technology isn't intended to replace patients' connection to a primary care physician. Instead, it's meant to hook them up quickly to care that is sometimes difficult to find.

Most states currently have laws requiring insurers to pay for telemedicine; most other states have formal state definitions of what telemedicine services are. Many of those states have adopted a national model policy that allows patients to establish relationships with a healthcare provider through a videoconference rather than an in-person meeting. Definitely, there is room for improvement to help consumers and other stakeholders reduce the cost of healthcare including cost containments and consumerism models providing more transparency and choice.

However, this landscape is continually shifting as state legislatures and government agencies look to regulate the product. Updates happen often, and it’s up to the providers to keep on top of what’s legal and what’s not. Doctors in general don’t want to risk losing their medical license for want of quick, easy consultations and additional revenues. Physicians who align themselves with reputable telemedicine companies are less likely to run afoul of the regulatory maze with this product.

Reported by Modern Medicine magazine, a survey from PricewaterhouseCoopers said 50% of consumers surveyed said they would be willing to seek healthcare through the internet or other computer technology instead of face-to-face, non-emergency visits. E-mail consultation was the top choice (76%), followed by telemedicine, question-answer consults and an online forum monitored by a doctor.

The second alternative to access was retail and worksite clinics for patients. Of consumers surveyed, 37% said they would likely use a worksite clinic, and 36% said they would use a retail health clinic. The third alternative was the use of telemedicine technologies. This method could expand access to specialty physicians for patients in remote and underserved areas.

Telemedicine, sometimes called telehealth, has several advantages. And, the vast majority of patients like using this type of service. A survey by Software Advice shows the following results. According to their report, 6% of patients who have used telemedicine didn't perceive any benefits over in-person visits. The remaining patients cited the following benefits of virtual appointments:

  • 21% - quality of care

  • 21% - don't have to travel

  • 20% - comfort of home

  • 11% - quick access to care

  • 10% - shorter wait time

  • 9% - easy to use

  • 8% - avoid waiting room

  • 4% - cost effective

So, those six percent would likely have complained about anything else. You can’t make everyone happy. But a 94% success ratio is better than most other ways to deliver patient care. Primarily, people said it is so much more convenient. They save time from leaving work or school and save money. The convenience dominates over all other aspects.

Telemedicine is getting huge attention as a way to lower employee health care costs. According to the American Telemedicine Association (ATA), telemedicine is the use of medical information exchanged from one site to another via electronic communications to improve patients' health status. The ATA says telemedicine has been growing rapidly because it offers three fundamental benefits:

  • Improved Access – For over 40 years, telemedicine has been used to bring healthcare services to patients in distant locations. Not only does telemedicine improve access to patients, but it also allows physicians and health facilities to expand their reach beyond their own offices.

  • Cost Efficiencies - Reducing or containing the cost of healthcare is one of the most important reasons for funding and adopting telehealth technologies. Telemedicine has been shown to reduce the cost of healthcare and increase efficiency through better management of chronic diseases, shared health professional staffing, reduced travel times and fewer or shorter hospital stays.

  • Patient Demand - Consumers want telemedicine. The greatest impact of telemedicine is on the patient, their family and their community. Using telemedicine technologies reduces travel time and related stresses to the patient. Over the past 15 years, study after study has documented patient satisfaction and support for telehealth services. Such services offer patients the access to providers that might not be available otherwise as well as medical services without the need to travel long distances.

If a self-funded employer group may be paying claims, telemedicine can serve as a tremendous cost savings to the company even as a non-voluntary offering to employees. Imagine not having to reimburse a doctor for the expense of an office visit, and your employee doesn’t have to miss half of his work day waiting to talk to a physician about getting a prescription. Reducing the rate of employee absenteeism is a big win for both labor and management. What employer wouldn’t jump at this way to save on health care expenses, especially if there are hundreds or thousands of employees?

Telemedicine has measurable cost effective results and the ability to transfer lifesaving data during critical needs diagnosis. Those companies and professionals who make the best use of telemedicine for their practices should see more efficiency on a clinical basis as well as increased profitability and return on investments. Patients who learn how to access telemedicine points of service have the ability to increase options to manage their health care and are able to save money and time. Even if you already have health insurance, imagine how much extra time and money consumers can save if they used telemedicine.

Has the market become saturated with players? Not yet, but the popularity of telemedicine as a part of a health plan or employee benefit plan is definitely on the rise. There are more companies now in the space than even a year ago, and more organizations view telemedicine as a way to help control skyrocketing claims costs. Individual consumers are still scratching their heads about what it is and how to use it. But once they do, they are confirmed users.

Overall utilization was low until the pandemic. However, according to McKinsey & Company, strong continued uptake, favorable consumer perception, and tangible investment into this space contributed to the continued growth of telehealth in 2021. Their analysis indicated telehealth use increased 38X from the pre-COVID-19 baseline. This step-change, borne out of necessity, was enabled by these factors: 1) increased consumer willingness to use telehealth, 2) increased provider willingness to use telehealth, 3) regulatory changes enabling greater access and reimbursement.

As telemedicine continues to gain ground in popularity those numbers are going to grow and remain popular. The essential key for telemedicine companies is good financial management of the tools and physician networks. Also, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services took a range of administrative steps to expedite the adoption and awareness of telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of these telehealth flexibilities have been made permanent while others are temporary. More detailed information about those rules can be found on the HHS website.

Forbes magazine previously reported that the AMA has been working on ways to advise physicians on the best way to deal with and incorporate telemedicine into their practice while maintaining the required ethics of a doctor-patient relationship. With so many people traveling both in the US and overseas for healthcare, incorporating telehealth guidelines should help to ensure better quality when it comes to continuum of care.

Employers, especially those that are self funded, who are looking for ways to help employees save money and time on health care expenses, as well as increase their own profitability, would do well to engage telemedicine as a valuable tool in their overall plan. Plus, employees would keep more money in their wallet by using telemedicine. Imagine not having to pay for a doctor consult, not having to sit in a waiting room for hours, and not having to miss work! Reducing absenteeism and presenteeism (when employers are at their job but not really working because they are sick) is a major plus when telemedicine can be used to save hours on the clock and provide cost savings to both the employee and the business.

Telemedicine is definitely a winning concept for everyone. Individual consumers and families would all win as well. Healthcare organizations win by speeding up patient engagement and better outcomes as well as reducing costs. All stakeholders in the healthcare continuum gain a competitive advantage when this product is successfully engaged. Patients win. Employers win. Doctors win. The economy wins. Healthcare wins.

Contact me for solutions and affordable telemedicine options. You can even explore some of that information on this website. Let me know how I can help you save time and money using telemedicine. Learn how to put virtual healthcare to work for you and your family. Employers, reach out to me to see how your employee benefits program can be enriched with telemedicine. Let's have a conversation soon before you need to talk with a Doc.

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