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