‘Vir­tual’ doc­tor vis­its en­tice em­ploy­ers, but what about pa­tients?

Santa Fe New Mexican - - LOCAL& REGION - By Ann Car­rns

Em­ploy­ees choos­ing work­place health ben­e­fits for the next year will prob­a­bly not see a ma­jor change in their pre­mi­ums. But they are likely to en­counter more op­tions for “vir­tual” doc­tor vis­its.

As the an­nual open en­roll­ment sea­son for health ben­e­fits gets un­der­way, more large em­ploy­ers are of­fer­ing ser­vices that let pa­tients con­sult doc­tors who are in a sep­a­rate lo­ca­tion, us­ing tech­nol­ogy like se­cure video chats or re­mote mon­i­tor­ing. About three-quar­ters of large firms that of­fer health in­surance now cover such “telemedicine,” a re­cent sur­vey from the Kaiser Fam­ily Foun­da­tion found. That is up from 27 per­cent three years ago.

And half the large em­ploy­ers that were sur­veyed by the Na­tional Busi­ness Group on Health said adopt­ing vir­tual solutions was their “top ini­tia­tive” in 2019. The nearly 160 com­pa­nies in the sur­vey col­lec­tively em­ploy about 13 mil­lion peo­ple.

Em­ploy­ers are mov­ing to vir­tual care partly to make health care more con­ve­nient for work­ers, who can get ad­vice for non­emer­gency ail­ments with­out vis­it­ing a doc­tor’s of­fice.

Em­ploy­ers are also seek­ing ways to rein in health care costs by re­duc­ing un­nec­es­sary of­fice and emer­gency room vis­its.

The av­er­age to­tal an­nual pre­mium paid for fam­ily health cov­er­age is about $20,000, up 5 per­cent since 2017 and 20 per­cent over the past five years, the Kaiser foun­da­tion found. Em­ploy­ers pay most of that amount, while em­ploy­ees, on av­er­age, con­trib­ute about $5,550, Kaiser said. The Kaiser sur­vey, of about 2,200 em­ploy­ers, was con­ducted in the first seven months of 2018.

De­spite em­ployer adop­tion of vir­tual vis­its, they have been slow to catch on with pa­tients. Fewer than 1 per­cent of en­rollees in large em­ployer health in­surance plans used telemedicine ser­vices in 2016, ac­cord­ing to a sep­a­rate Kaiser anal­y­sis of med­i­cal claims data.

Mer­cer, a large em­ployee ben­e­fits

con­sult­ing firm, also found that worker use of telemedicine re­mained “frus­trat­ingly low.”

“It has not quite hit the main­stream yet,” said Mei Wa Kwong, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Con­nected Health Pol­icy, a non­profit group that pro­motes the use of vir­tual tech­nolo­gies in health care. It’s hard for some peo­ple to break out of the tra­di­tion of go­ing to a doc­tor’s of­fice, Kwong said.

Here are some ques­tions and an­swers about vir­tual health care:

Is there a fee for con­sult­ing a physi­cian on­line?

Fees or co­pay­ments de­pend on the de­tails of your in­surance plan.

Some em­ploy­ers of­fer vir­tual vis­its through a health plan, while oth­ers con­tract with sep­a­rate com­pa­nies to of­fer the ser­vice. While some providers charge peo­ple with­out health cov­er­age about $70 per vir­tual visit, the cost can be $40 or less — or even free — for peo­ple with work­place health in­surance.

How can I help a vir­tual doc­tor visit go smoothly?

On­line vis­its are best for rou­tine ail­ments, like cold or flu symp­toms, al­ler­gies, pink­eye, bron­chi­tis or skin prob­lems, or for fol­low-up vis­its, providers say. More se­vere symp­toms — say, a lump that raises a cancer con­cern — call for an in-per­son visit.

Vir­tual vis­its are also par­tic­u­larly use­ful for psy­cho­log­i­cal coun­sel­ing and other be­hav­ioral treat­ments, since they tend to in­volve talk ther­apy rather than a phys­i­cal exam, Kwong noted.

If you de­cide to try a vir­tual visit, it helps to fa­mil­iar­ize your­self with the ser­vice’s rules and sign up ahead of time, so you won’t have to worry about fill­ing out on­line forms when you aren’t feel­ing your best.

What do I need to par­tic­i­pate in a vir­tual doc­tor visit?

You’ll need re­li­able in­ter­net ac­cess and an ap­pro­pri­ate dig­i­tal de­vice. Pa­tients can use a com­puter or a lap­top, but most ser­vices also work with apps that can be down­loaded onto a tablet or a mo­bile phone.

MINH UONG/NEW YORK TIMES

Em­ploy­ees choos­ing work­place health ben­e­fits for 2019 will prob­a­bly not see a ma­jor change in their pre­mi­ums. But they are likely to en­counter more op­tions for ‘vir­tual’ doc­tor vis­its.

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