Increasing Telehealth and Virtual Care in the COVID-19 Era
Even before our lives were upended by the pandemic, organizations were starting to put more of a focus on virtual care, including telehealth benefits, as a way to better support their employees. Of course now, that focus is only getting stronger.
“The use of telehealth for behavioral health among our members is at a rate 56 times higher than pre-COVID-19 levels,” said Gail Boudreaux, CEO of Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, in a recent interview with Fierce Healthcare. “Demand for telehealth is high across the board, with the number of virtual health visits up 300 percent compared to pre-COVID-19 levels.” Boudreaux also added that as of July 2020, Anthem has facilitated 475,000 telehealth visits and more than 82,000 online COVID-19 assessments.1
Companies and organizations across the country are seeing an increase in behavioral and physical health issues, especially when you consider that more people are delaying care because they don’t feel comfortable going to see their doctor. That’s why health insurers are tapping into technology to help more people proactively and quickly address their needs.
According to Boston Consulting Group (BCG), in 2020 remote workers were utilizing telehealth, mental health support and well-being benefits to a greater degree than employees in the office because being at home gives them more privacy and windows of opportunity to use it. Now as the workplace continues to evolve with more employees working from home, telehealth could become even more important to your employees. The BCG data indicates that up to 85 percent of behavioral healthcare and 40 to 50 percent of primary care could occur via virtual visits.2
Before we get too far along, let’s define virtual care and telehealth. We define virtual care as a broader term that encompasses all of the digital tools and services that support a patient’s health, while telehealth is a type of virtual care where patients receive individually tailored clinical care and guidance remotely.
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The rise of telehealth during COVID-19
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the BCG survey reported that Americans were a little hesitant to give telehealth a try, with less than one percent of total doctors' visits utilizing this channel. That changed in a hurry once stay-at-home orders went into effect and medical practices closed to patients for most elective care, causing doctors and patients to rapidly adapt to the ways they interact—resulting in a major shift in healthcare delivery.
In fact, the adoption and usage of telehealth during COVID-19 has been so great, analysts at Forrester are predicting that due to continued social distancing measures at doctor’s offices and hospitals, virtual care visits could push to the one billion mark by the end of 2020.3
Today, as COVID-19 concerns continue and employees are becoming more familiar with virtual care, it’s easy to see how it can play a critical role whether they’re experiencing potential symptoms, need mental health support or just routine care. Actively communicating your telemedicine benefits and having that information freely accessible is key.
What’s more, The Harris Poll has tracked the significant rise in demand for telehealth services across different applications and demographics.
- After the first six weeks of lockdown, only 32 percent of Americans had used telehealth services; less than a month later, we saw a significant jump in demand to 44 percent. And among those users, 70 percent claim they used it for the first time during the pandemic.5
- Since the end of April, new users of telehealth have increased from 15 percent to 27 percent and is consistent across demographic groups. Usage is also up among men from 37 percent to 50 percent.6
- As of June, over half of Americans indicate they are still reluctant to engage in a traditional healthcare setting (for non-emergency visits) unless specific conditions are met and nearly two in 10 say they wouldn’t go to a doctor’s office for elective healthcare under any circumstances. As such, it’s no surprise that telehealth utilization rates are increasing not only overall, but also in frequency of use. Since the pandemic began, nearly four in 10 Americans have used telehealth services three or more times.7
Interestingly enough, BCBS data also suggests that telehealth has likely helped with cost avoidance. When asked where they would have gone for care over the last four or five months if telehealth wasn’t available to them, here’s how respondents answered: 43 percent said their primary care provider, 23 percent said an urgent care center, nine percent would have gone to the emergency department and 13 percent would not have received care.8
The different ways we're using telehealth
Overall, telehealth is available for a diverse set of applications including mental health services, diagnostic visits (for non-COVID-19 and COVID-19-related conditions), nutritional consultations and physical/occupational therapy sessions. There has also been an increase in ongoing management of existing chronic conditions and remote monitoring of chronic health through telehealth.
In a survey of more than 1,800 patients, Doctor.com found that participants would consider telehealth for a wide range of conditions.
The future of virtual care beyond the pandemic
In many ways, telehealth reflects today’s consumer experience and desires in our on-demand world: easy, always-available access to physicians, right from their smartphones or laptops. And we’re seeing that Americans seem willing to keep using telemedicine services even as we head back to the workplace, which correlates with other big behavior changes that we’ve seen in the past, indicating virtual care may be here to stay.
Data from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (BCBSA) National Generation Survey backs that up: Of those who have used telehealth or virtual care services, 70 percent of respondents indicated they are likely to continue using telehealth or virtual care services in the future; just seven percent indicated they would not.
The ease and convenience of telehealth can also positively impact your employees’ overall health. Before the pandemic, health insurers provided resources for telehealth and many companies had already begun to embrace it to help promote the full health of employees across their organizations. There have been particular benefits of leveraging telehealth to improve access to behavioral health providers virtually, helping your employees connect to the proper care they need as they take on more everyday stressors in these challenging times.
To improve access and help its members address their emotional well-being, Independence Blue Cross offers a free, confidential online program called On to Better Health with self-assessments, articles, videos, and personalized and guided therapy available 24/7.
By adding a new level of convenience, telehealth is opening more doors to care for all employees in more locations, which can lead to great results for everyone in several different ways.
Fewer missed appointments and easier prescription pickup
Employees are more likely to schedule and keep appointments. That, in turn, means they’re managing their health better than in the past, which supports a more productive workforce. The availability of mail-order prescriptions through digital platforms also helps employees easily manage their medications.
Less time away from work
It requires less time away from the office (whether working from home or on-site) than physically visiting a doctor’s office. Telehealth appointments can save patients over 100 minutes of their time compared to an in-person visit, and they can conduct each appointment in the comfort of their own home.9 And that may make a big difference considering 11 percent of people in the BCBSA Generation Survey said their work hours have increased as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
More access to behavioral healthcare
Employees may be more likely to access mental health support than they otherwise would have, helping them stay engaged and productive. Consider on-demand mobile healthcare apps and online programs with resiliency tools and self-guided cognitive behavioral health therapy that can be added to your health plan benefits. These types of tools also reduce stigma and increase provider availability.
The way we access healthcare is rapidly changing. Employers need to adapt with it. And the first step in making telehealth technology work for your organization is working with your healthcare partner. Discuss how you can optimize your virtual care benefit offerings. Explore different mobile apps and online programs. Create an internal awareness campaign to communicate the convenience and financial impact of virtual care options. The more you can do now to bolster and adapt your health plan to reflect our changing times, the better your employees will feel as you move forward together.
1 Fierce Healthcare, “Anthem seeing massive spike in use of telemedicine for behavioral health”, July 2020
2 Boston Consulting Group patient sentiment survey (May 5th 2020); AHA: “Virtual Behavioral Health Services”; CDC: “NAMCS Factsheets”, 2015-2016, American Well; UBS: “Initiating coverage for Teladoc”, 2020 (These analyses represent only potential scenarios based on discrete data from one point in time. They are not intended as a prediction or forecast, and the situation is changing daily.)
3 Forrester, “US Virtual Care Visits to Soar to More Than 1 Billion,” 2020
4 BCBSA National Generation Survey, 2019.; BCBSA National Generation Survey, 2020
5,6,7 The Harris Poll, Telehealth: The coming "New Normal" for Healthcare Part 2, June 2020
8 BCBSA National Generation Survey, 2020
9 Forbes, “1 in 5 People Would Switch Doctors for Video Visits” 2017
10 Boston Consulting Group, Wellframe Health surveyed a group of >800 adults in the US with one or more chronic conditions in May, 2020 (These analyses represent only potential scenarios based on discrete data from one point in time. They are not intended as a prediction or forecast, and the situation is changing daily.)