How Telehealth Can Help America Get Back to Work Quicker

When employees get sick, it’s like their companies get a little sick, too. Employee health can have dramatic impacts on company productivity. The Integrated Benefits Institute estimates that poor employee health imposes $880 billion in annual costs, which includes a $530 billion deficit from lost productivity due to absent workers and employees working while sick. Telehealth—the remote diagnosis and treatments of patients—is one potential way to lower these costs while improving provider access for employees.

America’s employers are already taking steps to help their workers get healthier faster. Amazon recently announced the acquisition of Health Navigator, a platform designed to provide digital care for the company’s employees. This service aims to reduce travel and wait times to see physicians, thereby getting employees treatment as quickly and as conveniently as possible.

Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, cites healthcare costs as one of their largest expenses outside of wages for the company’s 1.4 million employees. To reduce these costs, the company plans to test several pilot programs across the country at the start of the new year. In the Carolinas, Walmart plans to offer services to alleviate billing issues, connect patients and providers, and help employees understand diagnoses. In three Midwestern states, Walmart will offer $4 telehealth visits. Previous test groups have shown that telehealth does not detract from patient outcomes, and that it significantly increases patient satisfaction.       

In Florida, an innovative experiment to promote employee health is underway. In early October, Tampa General Hospital and OnMed, a technology company based in Clearwater, announced a partnership to launch the first on-campus telehealth site for hospital employees. The OnMed system is the only self-operating medical unit connecting patients with providers and pharmacists for both consultative needs and on-site prescribing. Treating common ailments, like flu or strep throat, as quickly as possible is a key to recovery and a contributing factor to a healthy and productive workforce. On-site access to a physician can lead to earlier treatment and, therefore, a quicker recovery. 

In January of 2018, Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JP Morgan Chase partnered to create a venture called Haven Healthcare to increase provider access for their employees. Haven’s objective is to generate excellent patient outcomes and satisfaction while cutting costs. Together, the three organizations currently spend a $4 billion a year on the health of their combined 1.2 million employees. While the start-up has yet to lay out specific plans, their aspirations are high. Implementing a system similar to that of OnMed is a venue that Haven will most likely explore to achieve this objective.

Employers clearly see telehealth as a promising avenue to efficiently get their workers back to the office. Unfortunately, policies in many states currently prevent telehealth’s flourishing.

The Mercatus Center’s Healthcare Openness and Access Project points to several barriers that stand in the way of the full utilization of telehealth. Currently, some states require an assistant, or “telepresenter,” to be physically present with a patient receiving digital services. This requirement effectively limits the location in which a patient receives treatment and could render useless innovative systems such as OnMed.

Online prescribing laws also vary from state to state. Some states, like Wyoming and Georgia, require an established provider-patient relationship before a provider can prescribe medication. This requirement can sometimes mean that a person would need to have an in-person interaction with their doctor before being eligible to be treated digitally.  Several states, like Missouri and Iowa, do not allow online prescribing based on a digital questionnaire or consultation; another regulation that slows the spread of innovative telehealth services. 

Telehealth has the potential to lower costs and lead to greater access to services if policy allows. Corporations and small businesses alike offering health plans should consider the positive impact that incorporating telehealth services into their benefits could have on their bottom line. State legislators should evaluate current policies and determine the most efficient way to maximize the implementation of this digital technology across their states.

Photo credit: PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images