Telemedicine could potentially deliver more than $6 billion a year in health care savings to U.S. companies, with research identifying that about one in seven primary care office visits are for conditions that could likely be addressed through a telemedicine visit, according to analysis by global professional services company Towers Watson.
The percentage of employers offering telemedicine is expected to rise from 22 percent to 37 percent, a 68 percent increase, based on percentages from Towers Watson’s 2014 Health Care Changes Ahead Survey of U.S. employers with at least 1,000 employees.
According to the report, 37 percent of employers surveyed said that by 2015 they expect to offer their employees telemedicine consultations as a low-cost alternative to emergency room or physician office visits for non-emergency health issues.
However, Dr. Jeffrey Levin-Scherz, a senior consultant at Towers Watson, told eWEEK patients should be sure that they have adequate security on their own computers and email systems if they are using these for telemedicine.
“We generally recommend that patients not transmit or receive personal medical information via a work email,” he said. “Major telemedicine vendors take security and privacy issues very seriously, and offer HIPAA compliant virtual visits, as well as HIPAA compliant record system.”
Another 34 percent are considering offering telemedicine for 2016 or 2017, the survey indicated.
The benefit of telemedicine has the potential to impact organizations of all sizes, from small employers to those interested in providing convenient medical care, even if it increases overall medical expenditure, by seeking to be an employer of choice.
“Telemedicine requires that patients have access to a telemedicine service, that they actually know about that access, and that they use the service,” Levin-Scherz said. “We expect that patient demand for these services will increase as more people have friends and families who have had good experiences with these visits.”
Telemedicine still faces some regulatory challenges – state-by-state regulation makes it difficult to offer truly national services, and many employers require a solution that doesn’t stop at a state line, Levin-Scherz admitted.
“Technology is advancing rapidly, and is likely to increase the scope of future telemedicine visits,” he explained.
Levin-Scherz noted there are a growing number of very competent providers in the telemedicine space, which includes Teladoc, MD LiveCare, American Well and LiveHealth On-line.
In addition, he noted some physician practices offer virtual visits through Google Help-Outs as well.
“Successful companies offer rapid access, broad geographic reach, well-trained clinicians and software that can enhance the virtual visit experience,” he said. “Telemedicine companies can also integrate with ‘brick-and-mortar’ providers through transmitting visit information with patient permission, and referring patients for whom a virtual visit cannot address adequate clinical concerns.”
Finally, Levin-Scherz pointed out improvements in mobile technology allow a broader scope for telemedicine.
“Most Americans with a smartphone have adequate cameras and bandwidth to allow for meaningful video, and we’ll increasingly see add-on devices that can transmit images, vital signs like temperature or blood pressure and even a lung examination or an electrocardiogram,” he said.