Increased Use of Telemedicine

How the Pandemic Influenced Methods of Accessing Healthcare

Mar. 23, 2021
By: Jennifer Jones, Sr. Director of Health Strategy

Last month, Springbuk released its annual Employee Health Trends report for 2021, focusing on four key trends that will be crucial for employers to measure and track as they navigate costs and planning of benefits throughout the year. Within this report, we examined the following areas and their potential to change the game of healthcare this year.

  • Telemedicine Utilization

  • Reduction of ER Visits

  • Shift of Elective Procedures

  • Emerging Micro-trends in Mental Health

This is the second part of a series of follow-up blogs related to our Trends report to review our most recent data and provide further insight into what we are currently seeing.

In our Downstream Impacts of COVID-19 report, released in October of 2020, we highlighted the exponential growth with telemedicine - at the tune of 12 times greater than 2019. In our Trends report, we also highlighted the dramatic increase in use of telemedicine for mental health services and the increasing costs associated with telemedicine as related to the cost per encounter and PMPM costs. Now, as we close in on the first quarter of 2021, where mass vaccinations are in full swing, COVID-19 positivity rates are trending down, and states are continuing to roll back capacity restrictions, members have many more options for care than they did one year ago.


Utilization in 2021 and Beyond

So, has the pandemic been effective in changing how we access healthcare? Have we been successful in truly changing the paradigm of healthcare delivery?

Initial data would begin to suggest so. Below shows total telemedicine encounters through Jan. 2021 (based on incurred date, January data not complete). While we saw the dip after the initial spike in utilization at the beginning of the pandemic, telemedicine utilization remained steady throughout the end of 2020 with an average of 66.5 encounters per 1,000 per month (versus 4.4 encounters per 1,000 per month in 2019), suggesting that widespread adoption of this mode of healthcare has promise to be a staple going forward.


A Greater Reliance on Telemedicine

We know the benefits telemedicine can bring improved efficiency and convenience, reduced exposure to infection, and expansion of specialty services like mental health. Now it appears that members have confidence in the quality and care it can deliver.

Accelerate Health surveyed consumers in September 2020, with results indicating40% had used some form of telemedicine since the onset of the pandemic and 77% were willing to use some form of telemedicine in the future. Those sediments are still true as we move through 2021. Respondents in a survey by Evernorth indicate that 64% trust new technologies coming to market, and half are comfortable replacing in-person care with virtual care in cases with mild symptoms.

To make Telemedicine an ongoing reality in a post-COVID environment, experts from Cleveland Clinic identified five components that are critical for telemedicine to provide:

  1. Easy to Access Care - Include options for scheduled and on-demand care, teach patients and staff how to navigate digital platforms, and ensure both patients and staff have the information they need to make the most of the visit.

  2. Expertise Across Specialties - Allows for one of the greatest savings potential within telemedicine; match members with specialists best suited to review their case; gives potential to access specialists, potentially around the world.

  3. Personalized Care From Start to Finish - Requires strong collaboration among all providers that focuses on personalized care, not just cost or quality, but factors in experience. Focus becomes longitudinal care that includes a hybrid of in-person and virtual encounters.

  4. Speed to Insight - Ensure physicians/staff have access to the right tools at the right time to make virtual care flexible and easy to use.

  5. Results Patients Can Trust - 72% of expert-reviewed treatment plans were modified after analysis and 28% of case reviews result in change of diagnosis - underscores the importance of providing virtual access to experts to patients can trust results.


What’s to Come for Telemedicine

To come close to the potential savings predicted by McKinsey & Company that could be achieved by shifting various types of care to telemedicine ($250 billion), one key piece of the puzzle still remains – whether the current flexibilities and reimbursements for telemedicine will remain in a post-COVID environment, and that will require Congress to act, which is a topic currently being evaluated.

A survey by Amwell indicates 92% of physicians plan to incorporate telehealth into their practice post-COVID, and if the above five components are delivered in that care, telemedicine will have a clear path to delivering ongoing, quality longitudinal care in the foreseeable future.


For more insight into Telehealth utilization trends, download the 2021 Employee Health Trends Report.

Or, read the posts in this series on trends:


MEET THE AUTHOR

Jennifer Jones, MSM RD, Sr. Director of Health Strategy

Jennifer is an experienced healthcare professional with a background in clinical dietetics, wellness programming, and employer health. With over 15 years of experience, she has worked in various settings, including healthcare systems, occupational health organizations and health, and welfare benefits advisory firms. After working directly with patients and employees, Jennifer joined Springbuk, where she serves as the Sr. Director of Health Strategy Services, and turned her focus to population and employer health to achieve a greater impact on health outcomes.