There’s a new trend in employee benefits: offering a virtual care service. And, employers are embracing these additional health benefits. A study by the National Business Group on Health found that 96% of employers plan to make virtual care services available in states where the regulatory environment allows it by the end of 2018. Which raises the question, what is fueling this employer adoption and how can the healthcare industry address this rising demand and help drive success in virtual care benefit programs?
Employer Gains from Virtual Care
Employers have numerous and varied reasons for leaping on the virtual care bandwagon, but they all come down to seeing the advantages virtual care brings their organization. Typically these fall into two categories: cost savings and employee satisfaction.
Cost Savings with Virtual Care
This is the most tangible value employers get from offering virtual care as an employee benefit. According to a Willis Towers Watson survey, employers expect to see healthcare costs increase 5.5% in 2018. And collectively, employers spend more than $650 billion on health benefits. Virtual care offers employers – and their employees – a lower cost access point that meets the need for convenience typically addressed by high-cost urgent care centers or emergency rooms.
On average, an in-person visit costs approximately $175. This is based on average cost of care at various in-person locations – from primary care clinics up to the emergency department – and the average spread of utilization among them. Shifting even a small percentage of these in-person visits to a virtual access point can produce significant cost savings over time. For example, in a population of 5,000 employees and dependents, driving just 3% of anticipated visits to a virtual access point could produce savings of more than $65,000 per year.*
These are relatively rough calculations, but if you want to see how shifting care from a high- to low-cost access point can produce cost savings, we have an interactive calculator that can help.
Virtual Care and Talent Strategy
Increasingly, employers are faced with managing competitive talent markets. In the fight to acquire and retain the best talent, offering a benefits package that meets or exceeds the market standard is critical to an effective talent strategy. Remember, 96% of employers expect to offer a virtual care employee benefit by the end of 2018. Companies that want to attract and retain the best people, will almost certainly need to include virtual care in their benefits package to stay competitive.
Virtual care can produce other, “softer” wins for businesses, as well. Workplaces with a virtual care benefit may see reduced absenteeism and a corresponding increase in productivity, as employees don’t need to take time away from work to visit the doctor. Further, including virtual care in a benefits package signals that the company understands employee needs and is committed to their wellbeing, which can help increase employee satisfaction.
What it Means for Health Systems
Like other employers, health systems are also increasingly embracing virtual care. But unlike employers, they are adopting it as a care delivery channel. As a result, when health systems offer their own virtual care service as an employee benefit, they stand to gain even more than employers in other industries.
For starters, when launching a new virtual care service, health system employees make a phenomenal pilot population. They represent a clear, distinct population with a vested interest in organizational success, as well as being readily available to collect feedback on how the program is working. Piloting virtual care with employees can also help produce a rapid return in investment through the cost savings outlined above.
If you’re looking to launch to a broader population, one of the of the top drivers of virtual care utilization is provider recommendation. By launching virtual care internally as an employee benefit, health systems can increase provider acceptance and buy-in. When clinical providers and other patient-facing employees use the virtual care service as a patient, they can see first-hand the convenience it offers and the safety and quality of care delivered. Satisfied with their virtual care experience, these employees will be more inclined to recommend it to their patients, further driving utilization and return on investment.
How to Produce an Employee Benefit Win
With all these advantages untapped, what can organizations do to drive success with their virtual care employee benefit? Three things:
- Contract locally – One of the big challenges in healthcare is care fragmentation. Oftentimes, employers can unknowingly add to this by encouraging employees to use a contracted telemedicine service provider – taking care out of the standard care continuum and fragmenting their medical records. Health systems and employers can combat this by partnering to offer virtual care staffed with local providers. By contracting with local health systems, employers and patients get the value of a virtual care benefit without adding to healthcare fragmentation. Health systems win too, by adding a new avenue to acquire patients and improving virtual care utilization.
- Find the right price – For employees to truly benefit, and employers to see utilization that will drive cost savings, the service needs to be priced appropriately. When working with an employee population that has both traditional and HSA health plans, this can be tricky. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, understanding HSA eligibility is a key barrier to an effective virtual care employee offering. Under current regulations, employees on an HSA plan cannot receive virtual care for free. At Zipnosis, we recommend either a nominal fee of $5-$10, which still presents significant cost savings to employees, but doesn’t run afoul of HSA plan regulations.
- Spread the word – The biggest mistake employers and health systems make once they have a benefit offering in place is to “set it and forget it.” Organizations should use multiple channels to keep the virtual care offering front of mind for employees. These can include benefit materials, a benefit portal, intranet site, employee newsletters, HR emails, and company or department meetings, among others.
*Assumes an average of 2.5 visits per member per year
About the Author
Lisa Ide, MD, MPH
Dr. Lisa Ide is the Chief Medical Officer at Zipnosis, where she works to ensure the Zipnosis platform meets our customers’ clinical needs. She is a veteran physician with more than 25 years of experience. Dr. Ide specializes in occupational medicine, and brings the same commitment to patient safety and quality to her work at Zipnosis as she does when treating patients at the Center for Victims of Torture.