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Why Are Telemedicine Utilization Rates Slow to Catch Up?

Mercer’s latest National Survey reveals that these days, the majority of large companies offer telemedicine services to their employees—but employee telemedicine utilization rates are surprisingly slow to catch up. Over 70% of employers with at 500 employees report that their workers have access to telemedicine services through either their health plan or through a specialty vendor contracted outside their health plan, but in 2016, only 7% of eligible employees used telemedicine at least once.

Considering the touted benefits of telemedicine, one might expect employees to jump at the chance to use the new technology. Telemedicine can lower out-of-pocket costs, offer more convenience, and reduce unnecessary trips to the ER or urgent care. So why aren’t employees embracing the new technology more readily?

Change is hard to accept. Changing healthcare behavior is even more difficult—especially when people might not even know telemedicine is available.

For instance, telemedicine adds another element to the system of copayments and asks patients to switch from visiting (and paying) a doctor’s office to talking to a computer or device. A telemedicine visit often demands its own copay. The desired outcome is a resolution of the issue during the consult, saving both the provider and patient the time and expense of meeting at the office. However, if the consultation ends with a suggestion to head to the doctor’s office—which the patient knows up-front is a possibility—then the patient must pay another copay upon arrival; in this case, the patient will have incurred increased cost and time by engaging in telemedicine. According to the survey, among the employers who reported waiving the copay for telemedicine visits to work around this concern, the average utilization rate was indeed higher, suggesting that cost is an influencing factor in determining how people utilize telemedicine.

Mercer theorizes that utilization rates may also be low because employees are unaware that telemedicine is even available, don’t know how it works, or don’t know how to access it. To increase awareness and education, Mercer advises employers to use testimonials, timely communication materials, existing wellbeing portals, and incentive programs to encourage the use of telemedicine. In addition, companies that provide telemedicine through a vendor outside the health plan should work with the vendor to increase the utilization rate.

Of course, as Mercer points out, the quality of the telemedicine program itself should also be examined when investigating low telemedicine utilization rates. The study authors did not compare data for companies providing this service through their health plans versus through an outside vendor, but this sounds like an interesting direction to research in the future.

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