Health IT

Survey: Telemedicine could save employers $6 billion

Employers grappling with the ever-changing requirements, and would-be requirements, on providing benefits, can possibly find big savings in telemedicine – to the tune of nearly $6 billion, according to a new survey.

Despite the move to delay the enactment of an employer mandate as part of Obamacare, employers have been tweaking what sort of benefits packages and health services they offer employees to reduce costs. A Tower Watson survey of 597 employers with a total of 11.3 million full-time staff found that 57 percent are in the process of making changes. They include adopting an employer wellness plan, making telemedicine available to employees and using financial incentives to help employees better manage their health.

An infographic singles out best performers from the main herd and points out that they save more than $1,700 from their shrewd implementation of healthcare services.

But one of the key areas where Towers Watson projects employers will save money is telemedicine, since employees will no longer have to leave the office to go to the doctor for non-emergencies – 37 percent of employers said they expected to offer it by 2015 “as a low-cost alternative to emergency room or physician office visits for non-emergency health issues.” Another 34 percent are considering offering it by 2016 or 2017.

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Dr. Allan Khoury, a senior consultant at Towers Watson, acknowledges the cost saving will be quite a challenge to achieve. “Achieving this savings requires a shift in patient and physician mindsets, health plan willingness to integrate and reimburse such services, and regulatory support in all states,” he said.

Not surprisingly, it’s the larger employers who can afford to implement the technology needed. Currently, 22 percent of employers offer some sort of telemedicine, but that number is expected to increase significantly, to 37 percent, for an increase of 68 percent. Those percentages are based on responses from employers with at least 1,000 employees.

As the technology for telemedicine becomes more affordable and as insurance carriers cover it, more employers will likely adopt it as a strategy. However, among employers who offer it, utilization rates are low, with vendors indicating a per-member rate of less than 10 percent.

Nevertheless, telemedicine in the workplace could be at the “tip of the iceberg” point, Khoury said, noting that it will take on several different methods, not just video.

“Telemedicine is just one piece of a broader telehealth spectrum that includes video, apps, kiosks, virtual visits, wearable devices and other advancements,” he said.

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