Medical Professional on computer screenThe ways medical professionals and patients interact continues to change thanks to telemedicine. Your Maine-based company may already have telemedicine available, and it’s a benefit to both you and your employees.

Nearly three-quarters of employers with at least 500 workers said they make telemedicine services available, according to a survey by the Mercer consulting firm. However, employers with telemedicine programs in place reported that only 7% of eligible employees have used it even once. And many employees who have access to telemedicine aren’t even aware that it’s an option for them despite its wide availability.

Thanks to technology innovation, a growing shortage of clinicians and a large population of Baby Boomers who are making more demands on the health care system, the telemedicine industry is growing rapidly.

By Definition

On the website, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines telehealth as “the use of electronic information and telecommunications technologies to support and promote long-distance clinical health care, patient and professional health-related education, public health and health administration.

“Technologies include videoconferencing, the internet, store-and-forward imaging, streaming media, and terrestrial and wireless communications.”

The Upside and the Downside

This definition of telemedicine used by the U.S. Department of Health and Human specifies that there’s more to it than easy communication. Telemedicine “seeks to improve a patient’s health,” according to the HHS. How is the goal of improved health advanced by telemedicine? It’s the technology:

  1. Physicians are freed up from tasks such as administrative procedures to spend more time diagnosing and creating care plans, and
  2. Without travel time, patients can be “seen” faster than would be possible for an in-person visit.

In some cases, telemedicine involves patients using smartphones and video applications to make virtual visits with their doctors. In other cases, doctors combine phone conversations and at-home monitoring tools that allow patients at home to take and transmit blood pressure, glucose levels and other measurements.

Some common conditions that may be diagnosed via telemedicine include: allergies, joint pain, asthma, upper respiratory infections, gastrointestinal distress, conjunctivitis, skin conditions such as rashes, muscle sprains, and urinary tract and bladder infections. These conditions may also be treated using telemedicine through sending medications (prescription and over the counter) for prompt home delivery.

The ability to receive care without leaving home was the most popular benefit reported by employees who had used telemedicine conferencing services. Quick access to care, short wait times and high quality of care were other cited benefits.

While there is an obvious goal to improve health for employees, health systems and insurance companies are adding telemedicine services to gain a competitive advantage. Incorporating telemedicine may succeed in positioning themselves as health plan leaders.

The two most common drawbacks cited by employees were “no physical exam” and “lack of in-person interaction.” While employees do say the convenience is nice, they also miss the human elements.

The biggest challenge for employers tends to be in educating employees about the advantages of using telemedicine. According to industry experts, the first step is to go all out in making sure employees understand that the benefit is available to them, and how it works.

The Knowledge Gap

Consulting firm Software Advice conducted research that found only 28% of surveyed employees knew whether they had access to telemedicine. In fact, most of them did. This highlights how much employers need to encourage employees to learn about and take advantage of telemedicine.


After they became familiar with telemedicine, more than 75% of those surveyed said they would be more likely to select a doctor that could deliver care via telemedicine.

Employers that offer telemedicine need to focus on their communication efforts. Here are some tactics to encourage your workforce to use this benefit:

  • Share stories or testimonials from employees who have used telemedicine services.
  • Time communications about the service to coincide with periods when employees might be more likely to try telemedicine, such as messages about the flu in the winter and allergies in the summer.
  • Tout telemedicine on your wellness portal, if you have one.
  • Offer a prize to employees who fill out a required “pre-use application” for telemedicine services.

A report by Mercer entitled “Reaping the Benefits of Telemedicine” outlined that when it came to incentives, a lower copay for telemedicine services can be motivating — to a point. When the median copay was $15, about 10% of employees used the service, but the percentage dropped to only 6% when the copay was $30. (Interestingly, a higher increase of participating came from offering low copays than a zero copay did.)

The research also revealed a distinction in rates of use between those telemedicine services that were embedded in the health plan versus those offered via a specialty vendor independent of the plan. The rate of use for the specialty vendors was 12% versus 6% for the in-plan services. But that’s unimpressive for a service that Mercer described as a possible “win for both the employee who benefits from greater convenience and out-of-pocket costs, and for the employer.”

This all makes it clear that many employers have not fully communicated the benefits of telemedicine to their employees or have not encouraged their use with incentives. If your company already offers telemedicine or is considering adding it, be sure to combine it with a strong communication effort to ensure that this important benefit doesn’t go to waste.