The Rise of Telemedicine & Lower Costs

In an effort to help employees stay as healthy and productive as they can be, many companies—Microsoft, Boeing, and Google to name three in Washington state—are turning to on-site health clinics. Other companies are doing the next best thing: linking their workers to doctors for telemedicine healthcare consultations online.

The virtual doctor will see you now

Virtual care visits are designed to avoid time-consuming and unnecessary doctor office visits or expensive trips to the emergency room. And blue-chip companies are employing the service more and more. Employee Benefit News (EBN) notes that telemedicine services among large employers nearly doubled from 30 percent in 2015 to 59 percent a year later.

A recent Forbes article reports that Teladoc, the first publicly-traded telehealth company, signed up more than 500 new accounts for 2016, including Starbucks, Dell, Merck, Marriott, and Mercedes Benz. Other telehealth companies include Doctor On Demand with services to more than 200 companies and American Well with services to 1,000 employers, including HUB International, Pitney Bowles, and Rite Aid. MDlive counts Microsoft and Walgreens among its clients, while Advanced TeleHealth Solutions has partnered with G.E.

Virtual doctors equal real savings

Towers Watson, the global professional services consultancy, calculates that a virtual care delivery model could potentially save American companies $6 billion. That’s if employees of all U.S. companies and their dependents swap face-to-face physician and urgent care visits for telemedicine interactions. But even a lower—and much more realistic—adoption rate could realize millions of dollars in health care savings.

In easier-to-relate-to numbers, a survey undertaken by Red Quill Consulting found that telehealth visits have the potential to save around $100 per visit when compared to traditional office visits. Virtual consults are priced at $40–50, while office visits check in at $136–$176. EBN reports a typical cost of $40 for a telemedicine visit versus $125 for an in-office one.virtual healthcare

Reducing the use of urgent care and the emergency department

The same survey found that telemedicine helps reduce reliance on urgent care or emergency rooms. Of patients who used the virtual healthcare visits, 5.6 percent would otherwise have gone to the ER and 45.8 percent would have used urgent care.

Telehealth services are only as good as their outcomes. In the Red Quill study, 83 percent of conditions were resolved by the virtual doctors. Of those that weren’t, 10 percent were referred to an emergency department and the others to an office visit.

Online visits through Kaiser Permanente

In Washington state, there’s an online service that even costs less than telemedicine. Kaiser Permanente (formerly Group Health) provides responses to members through online visits. Users fill out an online interview detailing symptoms and a short health history. An auto-generated response based on clinician-approved protocols is typically received within an hour, offering diagnosis, treatment plan and any needed prescriptions.

The service addresses more than 20 common medical conditions, including colds, flu, and allergy symptoms; minor eye conditions such as pink eye; urinary tract infections; skin conditions such as minor burns and shingles; and more. The cost is only $10, about one-fifth the cost of a telehealth interaction.

Kaiser Permanente also offers a 24-hour Consulting Nurse Service for members for advice on care or treatment options. And Kaiser Permanente clinic patients can securely e-mail their doctors with questions or concerns.

CareClinics: Yet another avenue of care

Online interactions aren’t the only ways Kaiser Permanente is helping to provide people with more convenient—and affordable—health care options. Walk-in CareClinics at Bartell Drugs allow anyone aged 2 and up to walk-in without an appointment for care or consultation for minor health issues and injuries. Clinics are staffed by Kaiser Permanente providers. Most insurance is accepted, even plans other than Kaiser Permanente. Employers without on-site clinics or virtual care often suggest walk-in clinics as near-site health care options for their employees.