The use of telehealth to help manage chronic conditions along with diagnosing and treating minor health issues was already on the rise before the COVID-19 pandemic first appeared in the United States in early 2020. Then came shutdowns, the cancellation of elective / non-essential procedures, and stay-at-home orders that forced many people to look for new solutions to their every day, non-emergent healthcare needs.
Recognizing the heightened risk seniors faced of contracting the coronavirus, President Donald Trump signed legislation increasing telehealth benefits for Medicare beneficiaries on March 6, 2020. The most reluctant population to use technology adapted to it for the most part and seemed to appreciate their ability to receive healthcare services from home.
With the pandemic soon heading into its second year, more people than ever are turning to telehealth to save time and money as well as decrease their risk of COVID-19 exposure. In fact, the Boston area alone saw a 100 percent increase in demand for telehealth services.1
This advancement in healthcare has also earned the backing of several prominent medical agencies such as the American Hospital Association. In its position statement advocating for increased access to medical care from home, the AHA cites patient use of telehealth as an important factor in reducing hospitalizations.
Here at Firefly Health, we see every day that the current method of healthcare delivery is irrevocably broken. Times have changed, as have the reasons that people schedule medical appointments.
While treatment of acute illness and injury were the main reasons people visited a clinic or hospital in the past, today the focus has shifted more towards the management of chronic health conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure. Further, many visits involve only a patient check-in and refill of medication, services that medical providers can easily provide in a virtual environment.
Employers and health insurance companies stand to save a significant amount of money by encouraging enrollees to utilize telehealth whenever possible. This statement also holds true for patients themselves.
Employers are painfully aware that the cost of offering employee health coverage is spiraling out of control. Faced with annual premium increases that average around five percent, business owners may feel like they have no choice but to pass along the increases to employees in the form of high-deductible health insurance plans.
Although most employees understand the rationale behind the increased deductions from their paychecks, premiums may become so unaffordable that they begin to looking elsewhere for employment with cheaper benefits. The solution of telehealth offers a strong compromise to each participant in the healthcare dilemma.
In 2018, the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans (IFEBP) conducted a study with 677 professionals in human resources and benefits administration. Respondents to the IFEBP study included small businesses to corporations representing a broad range of industries. Not surprisingly, 63 percent of respondents listed telehealth as a viable cost-management technique.
While this number is high, the study occurred two years prior to the pandemic. The percentage would surely be much higher if IFEBP repeated the study today. In an October 2020 report issued by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the government agency reports a 154 percent increase in the use of telehealth during the first half of 2020.
Julie Stich, Associate Vice President of IFEBP, stated in 2018 that she sees telehealth as the fastest-growing solution for keeping healthcare costs as low as possible. She further cited evidence of the reduced cost of insureds using telehealth instead of heading to an urgent care clinic or the nearest emergency room.
Besides the cost savings, employees expressed appreciation for the 24/7 availability of telehealth and the ability to start their appointments on time. While emergency room care is also available 24/7, the staff uses a triage system that means patients with less urgent needs may wait several hours for a doctor to see them.
As a medical provider offering telehealth services, Firefly Health has redefined the meaning of triage. Prior to the pandemic, and even in the early days of people having access to telehealth service, healthcare workers outside primary care used only a reactive triage method to access patient needs. The advent of telehealth has caused a shift towards proactive triage that improves patient health outcomes while decreasing their out-of-pocket costs at the same time.
Today’s technology provides a continuous influx of data that enables medical providers to take a proactive triage approach with their patients. With proactive triage, care teams reach out to the patient to assess and manage health conditions before they worsen and require more invasive and expensive treatment. Whether the patient has a chronic health condition or has just had surgery, telehealth enables faster and more convenient intervention to keep them on track towards progress.
However, it isn’t the video visit itself that is changing the landscape of healthcare delivery in the United States. Some patients will naturally prefer in-person visits no matter what the reason for seeking a doctor’s care. Others either don’t have access to the technology necessary to complete a telehealth visit or the skills required to connect to a healthcare provider remotely.
The true benefit of healthcare organizations offering remote medical appointments, and insurance companies and employers covering them for insureds is that having the option available makes continuous triage possible. Scheduling an online appointment versus seeing a patient at an urgent care or the emergency room gives medical providers more time to find the most appropriate resources and referral sources for follow-up care. Better management of chronic disease and prevention of common side effects of surgery or an acute injury are just two immediate benefits of continuous triage availability. The result is healthier patients and lowered healthcare costs for all parties involved in providing and financing patient medical services.
Employers seeking more information on using telehealth services to lower the cost of providing health insurance to employees can find what they need at firefly.health/employers.
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