With social isolating in full effect as a way to flatten the curve, people are discovering ways to still take care of what needs to be done. From working remotely and online grocery orders to teleconferencing with family and friends, virtual experiences are proving to not only be easy and accommodating but essential. This has even extended to the doctor’s office thanks to telemedicine—which has actually been an option for employee benefits packages for quite a while now, but has only seen a huge spike in participation recently.
Since COVID-19 can survive on many types of surfaces and contagious people may not show noticeable symptoms, healthcare professionals and clinic waiting rooms are high-risk for spreading the virus. When fewer patients are visiting hospitals and doctors in-person, there are fewer opportunities for the virus to spread. Thanks to growing telemedicine capabilities, this threat can be lessened tremendously during the pandemic and beyond.
What is telemedicine?
In its most widely applicable form, telemedicine uses video chat software to allow doctors to remotely evaluate patients. Specifics vary from one provider to the next, but the basic technology for telemedicine is similar to Skype or Zoom, except with added security measures for privacy. Depending on the type of software used by your doctor, you may be able to use your computer, smartphone, or tablet. Telemedicine can be used by not only your primary care physician and other medical doctors, but also mental health specialists.
Telemedicine pros and cons
If you’re relatively healthy and any existing conditions are well-managed, your doctor may only need to ask a few questions. With video conferencing, you’re able to discuss healthcare-related concerns, just like during an in-person evaluation. Telemedicine is effective for dealing with common medical issues such as flu, sinus infections, and asthma. Even specialists can take advantage of this platform, as a dermatologist can visually evaluate moles and warts during a video chat. Your doctor can even prescribe certain medications like antibiotics without an in-person visit.
Of course, telemedicine has its limits. Without blood testing, imaging, or even reliable vital signs, more serious conditions still require in-person assessment and treatment. Even so, by handling routine appointments remotely, doctors and hospitals can help relatively healthy patients from risking exposure to COVID-19 in hospitals and waiting rooms. Telemedicine isn’t appropriate for life-threatening emergencies like chest pain or shortness of breath, but it can be an effective tool for remote triage, evaluating which patients actually need in-person care.
Telemedicine before COVID-19
In a 2019 survey by JD Power, less than 10% of Americans had used telehealth services, and 74% said they either had no access or were unaware of telehealth options. The early adopters were young females (aged 18-24), and seniors were least likely to use the technology. Many people simply weren’t aware of telemedicine, particularly in rural areas, and roughly half worried about the quality of care dropping with an in-person visit.
How the pandemic has changed telemedicine
In response to COVID-19, many hospitals and insurance companies are dramatically expanding and promoting their telemedicine options. Some providers are temporarily waiving the fees for remote appointments, encouraging patients to use the service. Healthcare professionals are more likely to be exposed to the virus, but virtual care provides layers of protection. What’s more, when doctors contract the virus, telemedicine allows them to continue “seeing” patients while quarantined.
Raising awareness with employees
As a human resources professional, you should contact your employee benefits broker or insurance carrier about telemedicine services available to your company’s employees. Even if remote consultations weren’t originally part of your benefits package, there may be new programs to protect policyholders from unnecessary exposure during the pandemic. Local hospitals and clinics may also be promoting telehealth in your community. While local healthcare providers are often preferred, you can also compare out-of-pocket costs for remote providers like MDLive.
Whenever you understand the services available through your carrier and community healthcare providers, relay those options to employees. Your remote employees are probably reading a lot of emails, so make sure to communicate the most important information clearly. Help employees work effectively from home by limiting the number and length of emails you send and only focusing on relevant information (which telemedicine options would certainly apply).
How to use telemedicine
A lot will depend on the telehealth services available and the healthcare needs of each employee. If employees are engaged in ongoing therapy or counseling, then their therapists may have already contacted them about conducting sessions over the phone. Some procedures like elective surgery and cosmetic treatments are being postponed until the pandemic stabilizes, but routine doctor’s appointments are still necessary. Encourage employees to schedule telehealth appointments as needed. Even though you aren’t leaving your house, the appointment should be treated like a normal doctor’s appointment. Prepare any questions in advance, and set reminder alarms to make sure you’re on time.
The future of telemedicine
Apart from bigger stockpiles of face masks and PPE, it’s unclear how many things will actually change after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. If enough people try and like telemedicine during this period, then it has the potential to become a routine alternative to in-person healthcare. With improved technology, more advanced services can be offered as telehealth services. When the doctor determines that you need bloodwork and other tests, those might be scheduled as a separate walk-in or drive-through service.
Telemedicine as part of your company’s benefits package
As it continues to grow in popularity and technology improves, telemedicine will only continue to expand and become more prevalent in everyday life. For employers looking to provide their employees with the best, most comprehensive coverage—as well as remain competitive recruiting the best candidates—now is the time to incorporate telemedicine into your company’s benefits package. If your company’s benefits package already includes this service, then make it your mission to increase education and participation around telemedicine services.
Netchex remains fully operational through this unprecedented time. Our staff is hard at work for businesses like yours that are working diligently to remain in operation, adapt their policies, and ensure the safety of their employees. Netchex is here to help you accomplish all of this and more.