More Employers Offer Telehealth Benefits, But Few Employees Use Them

Employers have embraced telehealth with gusto. Seventy percent of large employers now offer telehealth benefits, according to an annual survey conducted by the National Business Group on Health (NBGH). Next year, 90 percent will do so.

Use of telehealth by employees has lagged though, as reported in a recent Chicago Tribune article.  The same NBGH survey found that only 3 percent of employees at companies offering telehealth benefits used them in the first half of 2016. Willis Towers Watson reports that only about a million of the 1.2 billion outpatient medical visits last year were conducted via telemedicine.

Companies hope that adding telehealth benefits will lower health benefit costs and increase worker productivity. This can only happen if workers choose to use the benefit. So why aren’t they?

The Chicago Tribune article outlines the main reasons for employees’ failure to use telehealth:  not knowing it’s available, not understanding it, and not trusting it to provide quality care.

“I think the first challenge is employees often don’t know about it,” said Lisa Mazur, a partner at law firm McDermott Will & Emery who advises providers and technology companies on telehealth services. “They need to be educated on its existence.”

Employees may also be skeptical that they can receive an accurate diagnosis over the phone or via a video visit with a doctor. In some cases, that skepticism may be warranted.

A study published in JAMA Dermatology this year highlighted potential problems with the quality of telehealth services:  Researchers examining 16 teledermatology services found major diagnoses repeatedly were missed, and prescribed treatments were sometimes at odds with existing guidelines.

Dr. Jack Resneck, the study’s lead author, said he’s enthusiastic about the possibilities of telehealth but interested in making sure that as it expands, it does so in a high-quality way.

He’s concerned that telehealth services offered to employees and other consumers don’t always allow patients to choose their doctors. Moreover, telehealth doctors often lack access to patients’ full medical records and aren’t in communication with their regular physicians.

“I think we’ve got lots of examples out there of seeing it done very well and other examples where there’s room for improvement,” said Resneck, a professor and vice chair of dermatology at the University of California at San Francisco.

A number of professional associations and other entities concerned with the quality of health care have established guidelines to ensure that telemedicine provides high quality care to patients. For example, last June the American Medical Association adopted new ethical guidance for doctors practicing telemedicine.


Click here to read the Chicago Tribune article on telemedicine, employees, and utilization.


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