Easier access, lower cost: how to get the most out of telemedicine programs

“Convenient” and “easy to use” aren’t how members would likely describe their experiences engaging with today’s complex health system. Telemedicine is one example of how payers are using technology and a keener understanding of consumer behavior to help change that narrative.

With the proliferation of mobile devices, telemedicine makes it easier than ever to have a doctor-patient visit any time by phone or other mobile devices. The reality today is that many people expect digital-first experiences as they go through daily life—and that extends to how they access health care.

Telemedicine’s video-based communication is designed to be a more convenient, easier-to-use option for non-acute medical issues, such as allergies, flu, colds, pinkeye, fevers and rashes.  Visits last about 20 minutes and doctors can diagnose conditions and send prescriptions* to a pharmacy when appropriate. 

* Certain prescriptions may not be available, and other restrictions may apply.

Focus on employee utilization 

UnitedHealthcare estimates that 25% of emergency room issues could have been diagnosed and treated through virtual care.A telemedicine visit can cost less than $50 a session compared to the $1,800 average cost of an emergency room treatment, and offers more convenient access when clinics and urgent care facilities are closed.2

Virtual care currently accounts for a small percentage of doctor visits, but that is starting to change. Virtual care surged an encouraging 624% from 2014 to 2018, showing that health consumers are starting to prioritize the convenience and lower cost of virtual care.3

Nearly half-a-million members have used UnitedHealthcare’s Virtual Visit program since it launched in 2016. And while in many cases there is no substitute for an in-person visit with a primary care physician with whom a member has a strong relationship, the company does see the opportunity for significantly greater use of virtual care, particularly among millennials. 

“Although members of all ages use our Virtual Visit program, most are between the ages of 30 to 34 and are primarily women,” said Patrick Keran, Vice President of Product Innovation and the commercial enterprise leader for telemedicine at UnitedHealthcare. “They think ‘why should I drive somewhere when I can sit in my living room or at work and talk to a doctor live online 24/7?’ It’s about ease of service and lower cost. We believe this access alternative will only grow in popularity over time.” 

Telemedicine’s ease and convenience extend beyond urgent care 

One of the fastest-growing uses of telemedicine is for treatment of behavior health issues, which cost the United States $193.2 billion in lost earnings per year. Mood disorders are the third-most common cause of hospitalization for people between ages 18–44. Telemedicine provides an additional avenue to seek care, and some find it to be a more private and comfortable way to get help. For rural Americans, telemedicine is a viable way to get access to mental health professionals without significant travel.4

There are also indications that telemedicine is becoming a more welcome access alternative for interactions with primary care physicians and specialists. A survey of 5,000 consumers by the Advisory Board found that about three-quarters of respondents said they would consider using virtual care with a doctor for their dermatology, oncology, pre- and post-surgery and pregnancy check-ups, in addition to the treatment of behavioral health issues.5

9-of-10 employed Americans say they would cancel or reschedule a booked preventive care appointment due to workplace pressures if they have to travel to the clinic.

For hourly employees, for whom leaving work means losing pay, telemedicine may mean the difference between getting care or not. This is leading some employers to set aside specific rooms for employees to use for virtual care on-site without having to take time away from work. And for the 85 million Americans who reside in one of the 7,200 mainly rural areas of the country that lack enough primary care professionals, telemedicine can be a more convenient, easy-to-use alternative to getting care in person.7

Encouraging more telemedicine use by employees

Two primary hurdles stand in the way of increasing telemedicine use in Keran’s view: Telemedicine needs to be easier and more intuitive to use; and it will require employers to build more awareness and promotion among employees.

On the technology front, UnitedHealthcare’s telemedicine portal delivers a streamlined user experience. With a single click on myuhc.com® or the new UnitedHealthcare® app, users can go directly to the telemedicine portal to schedule and conduct a session with a doctor through Teladoc®, eliminating multiple sign-ins and the need for a separate application for Virtual Visits.**

But lack of awareness of telemedicine among many employees is an even bigger issue.

“A lot of people just don’t know that Virtual Visits are included in their plans,” Keran said. “More promotion of these programs will help drive increased usage, which in turn will help drive member satisfaction and cost savings.”

A smart first step for employers: Encourage employees to pre-register for the program before they need it because it makes employees more likely to use it later on.

In 2017, UnitedHealthcare conducted an engagement campaign to get members to pre-register and increase awareness of how Virtual Visits could help them. The effort produced a 360% increase in registrations, and drove dramatically higher usage of virtual care when compared with employees who had not pre-registered in the program. 8

Incentives and more strategic promotion also key

In addition to promoting pre-registration, Keran recommends that employers consider providing an incentive for employees to use telemedicine, such as a reduced or fully subsidized copay. Ongoing and timely communications about telemedicine are also important. Employers could consider:

  • Including information specific to virtual care in employee onboarding communications.
  • Emphasizing the cost savings and convenience in all communications.
  • Scheduling periodic reminders about the benefits of telemedicine at relevant times, for example, around cold and flu season.
  • Recruiting employees who have used virtual care as advocates to share their experiences. 

From a cost perspective, telemedicine is already delivering results. UnitedHealthcare estimates its Virtual Visit program alone has delivered $11.2 million in savings through June 30, 2018.On a broader scale, telemedicine could provide up to an estimated $6 billion in annual savings.10

“Momentum is building around the merits of telemedicine. I think we will see usage blossom in the years ahead as more patients see the direct benefits it affords, and more and more primary care physicians will see it as a useful way to build a better, even more responsive relationship with their patients,” Keran said. 

**Beginning September 2019:

  • Teladoc®, a new Virtual Visits provider, will be joining the UnitedHealthcare network as the national Virtual Visit provider supporting an integrated Virtual Visit experience for members.
  • All fully insured and ASO clients who have not opted out of the Virtual Visits benefit will have an enhanced user experience with Teladoc.
  • Members will be able to initiate a Virtual Visit from the myuhc.com member site and the landing page in the new UnitedHealthcare app. This will be an integrated UnitedHealthcare-branded experience, where members no longer need to leave myuhc.com or download a separate application for Virtual Visit access.

Beginning January 2020:

  • The integrated Virtual Visits experience will be expanded to include telephonic (voice only) visits. The telephonic option will only be available through Teladoc.

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