Telemedicine continues to change the way that medical professionals and patients interact.

In a survey by the Mercer consulting firm, nearly three-quarters of employers with at least 500 workers said they make telemedicine services available. Yet employers with programs in place reported that only 7% of eligible employees used telemedicine at least once. And despite its wide availability, many employees who have access to telemedicine aren’t even aware that it’s an option for them.

The telemedicine industry is growing rapidly thanks to technology innovation, a growing shortage of clinicians and a large population of Baby Boomers who are making more demands on the health care system.

The Upside and the Downside

The definition of telemedicine used by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicates that there’s more to it than easy communication. Telemedicine “seeks to improve a patient’s health,” according to the HHS. How does telemedicine advance the goal of improved health? It’s the technology:

1. Physicians are freed up to spend more time diagnosing and creating care plans, as opposed to tasks such as administrative procedures, and

2. Patients can be “seen” faster than would be possible if they had to travel for an in-person visit.

In some cases, telemedicine involves patients making virtual visits with their doctors, using smartphones and video applications. In other cases, doctors combine phone conversations with at-home monitoring tools that allow patients to take and transmit blood pressure, glucose levels and other measurements.

Common conditions that may be diagnosed via telemedicine include: allergies, joint pain, asthma, upper respiratory infections, gastrointestinal distress, conjunctivitis, skin conditions such as rashes, muscle sprains, and urinary tract and bladder infections. The same conditions may also be treated using telemedicine through dispatching medications (prescription and over the counter) for prompt home delivery.

The most popular benefit reported by employees who had used telemedicine conferencing services was the ability to receive care without leaving home. Other benefits cited were: quick access to care, short wait times and high quality of care.

Apart from the obvious goal of improved health for employees, health systems and insurance companies are adding telemedicine services to gain a competitive advantage. Those that do incorporate telemedicine may succeed in positioning themselves as health plan leaders.

As for drawbacks cited by employees, the two most common were “no physical exam” and “lack of in-person interaction.” While these employees say the convenience is nice, many patients miss the human element.

For employers, the biggest challenge seems to be in educating employees about the advantages of using telemedicine. The first step, according to industry experts, is to pull out all the stops to make sure employees understand that the benefit is available to them, and how it works.

The Knowledge Gap

Research conducted by Software Advice, a consulting firm, highlights the progress employers need to make in encouraging employees to take advantage of telemedicine. It found that only 28% of surveyed employees knew whether they had access to telemedicine —  and, in fact, most of them did.

Once they were made familiar with telemedicine, more than three-quarters of those surveyed said they would be more likely to choose a doctor that could deliver care via telemedicine.

It’s clear that employers that offer telemedicine need to ramp up their communication efforts. Here are some tactics to communicate and motivate your workforce to use this benefit:

  • Share testimonials from employees who have taken advantage of telemedicine services.
  • Time messages about the service to coincide with periods when employees might be most likely to take advantage of telemedicine, such as messages about the flu in the winter and allergies in the summer.
  • Tout telemedicine on your wellness portal, if you have one.
  • Offer a prize to employees who fill out a required “pre-use application” for telemedicine services.

A report by Mercer entitled “Reaping the Benefits of Telemedicine” determined that when it came to incentives, charging lower copays for telemedicine services can be motivational — to a point. When the median copay was $15, about 10% of employees used the service, but only 6% did so when the copay was $30. (Interestingly, offering low copays resulted in a higher increase of participation than a zero copay did.)

Finally, the research revealed a distinction in rates of use between telemedicine services that were embedded in the health plan versus those offered through a specialty vendor independent of the plan. The rate of use for specialty vendors was 12% — compared to 6% for the in-plan services. Still, that’s unimpressive for a service that Mercer describes as a possible “win for both the employee who benefits from greater convenience and out-of-pocket costs, and for the employer.”

It’s clear that many employers aren’t making full use of all the communication tactics listed above or optimizing the financial incentives recommended by consultants. If your company offers telemedicine or you are considering adding it, be sure to couple it with a strong communication effort to ensure your workforce is aware of this important benefit.

A Definition

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines telehealth as the use of electronic information and telecommunications technologies to support and promote long-distance clinical health care, patient and professional health-related education, public health and health administration.

Technologies include videoconferencing, the internet, store-and-forward imaging, streaming media, and terrestrial and wireless communications.

— HealthIT.gov website