During the next several years, when an employee sees a doctor, it could very well be from the other side of a computer screen.
The National Business Group on Health’s Large Employers 2015 Health Plan Design Survey of 136 employers found that 48 percent of employers are planning to make telemedicine options available to employees by 2015.
The perennial rising cost of health care was cited as a leading factor in employers’ decision to add telemedicine to their benefits packages. According to Karen Marlo, vice president of benchmarking and analysis at the NBGH, telemedicine programs fall in line with the larger trend of employers shifting their employees to consumer-driven health plans. These high-deductible plans are intended to engage the employee in becoming a consumer of health care as opposed to just a user.
In the United States alone, the telemedicine industry is expected to increase in value from $240 million today to $1.9 billion in 2018.
“By having a financial investment in your health care at the beginning of the year, you’re more likely to think about your health care decisions and whether you should have this test done, and if you do, where should you go so that you don’t incur large expenses,” Marlo said.
With an average copayment of $40, telemedicine programs are an attractive substitute to potentially making unnecessary emergency room visits, which cost an average of $2,168, according to a 2013 National Institutes of Health survey.
According to the “Global Telemedicine Market Outlook 2018” report, a study conducted by market research firm Research and Markets, telemedicine is expected to experience an 18.5 percent growth worldwide by 2018. In the United States alone, the telemedicine industry is expected to increase in value from $240 million today to $1.9 billion in 2018.
The Association of American Medical Colleges’ Center for Workforce Studies estimates that by 2020 the United States will face a shortage of 45,000 primary-care physicians. Gallup states that the baby boomer generation accounts for one-third of the workforce. Individuals 65 and older use primary care at twice the rate of those under 65, according to the association.
Marlo is quick to note the limits of the practice. While telemedicine is useful in situations where employees can’t get to a doctor and need a diagnosis quickly, it’s a support tool, not a complete solution to the growing cost of health care.
“Where it’s appropriate, I think it’s a great opportunity,” Marlo said. “If you’re traveling on business and you’re not sure if you have bronchitis or just a really nasty chest cold, it can help you. I don’t think it’s the silver bullet. It doesn’t replace that ongoing relationship that an employee should have with a primary-care doctor to manage the larger, more complex health issues they have.”