Do you add telemedicine services to your employee benefit plan?

January 11

Virtual medical services are gaining traction in Canada leading to questions as to whether such services should be considered as an additional perk in employee benefits packages.

These services, also known as telemedicine, are the latest trend in healthcare offerings and allow patients to connect with nurses and family doctors across the country, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Practitioners can complete a consultation, make a diagnosis, write a prescription (where appropriate) and email it to the patient’s pharmacy of choice (and if that pharmacy provides home delivery then the medication is delivered directly to the patient’s door). Doctors will only consult on a list of common ailments — such as earaches, pinkeye and urinary tract infections — and will only prescribe non-narcotic medications.

‘See’ a nurse or doctor without leaving home

In a nutshell, telemedicine services mean a patient can ‘see’ a nurse or doctor without having to make an appointment, miss work and sit in a waiting room.

(It’s important to understand that telemedicine services are different than telehealth services. Many provinces, including Ontario, offer a free telephone service that allows residents to seek advice from a Registered Nurse. This nurse cannot provide a diagnosis or write prescriptions.)

However, while visiting a doctor’s office is covered by provincial healthcare plans (such as OHIP), using a telemedicine service is not. These services typically offer annual memberships as well as pay-per-use plans. Which brings us back to whether they should be included in your employee group benefits plan.

Weighing the ROI

But what’s your return on investment on such a benefits expense?

For businesses in the United States, the answer is easier to work out. That’s because in the U.S., healthcare is an out-of-pocket expense for residents and is often included in employee benefits plans. A visit to an urgent care centre for a minor ailment can be an expensive employee health insurance claim; a visit to a virtual medical service for the same ailment is far cheaper, thereby reducing healthcare claim costs.

In the U.S., employers are rapidly adopting telemedicine. According to research by Towers Watson, 38% of employers with more than 1,000 employees were offering the benefit at the end of 2015. That number was expected to grow to 81% by this year.

But the adoption rate is not the same in Canada because an employee’s visit to a doctor’s office is covered by provincial healthcare plans and does not affect a business’s employee health insurance claim costs — it simply results in lost time.

Does telemedicine fit within your company’s philosophy?

So is telemedicine a worthy perk to include in your employee benefits plan? While we can’t provide a definitive answer, we can offer a few questions to consider:

Is medical access an issue for your employees? Employees in urban centres typically don’t have difficulty accessing a doctor when needed. From family doctors to walk-in clinics and emergency rooms, care is readily available at any time of day or night. But businesses with employees in remote areas may not be able to easily access the same services. A visit to the doctor for a minor ailment may require a several hundred-kilometre journey and an entire day (or more) off work. In this case, you’ll want to weigh the cost of the benefit versus the lost hours in work performance.

Can you afford to have employees take time off for medical appointments? By afford, we don’t mean financially — we mean does your business suffer if an employee is absent for a medical appointment? The average person spends 2 to 5 hours travelling to and waiting in a doctor’s office — is it a big deal to your daily business operations if one employee is missing from the workday? If so, virtual medical services may reduce the amount of time an employee may need to miss work.

What is the assumption of utilization? While these services are still relatively new in Canada and there is little supporting data, some statistics have found that employee utilization of the service needs to be at approximately 60% to make the cost worthwhile. Do you think you can achieve this uptake?

Is it a perk you even want to offer? A successful employee benefits plan connects with company beliefs — employees feel more loyal and feel a greater connection to a company if the benefits offered internally match the company’s internal and external philosophies. Do virtual medical services fit in with your philosophies? Or would other employee perks be better matched and be a better use of your funds?

At Thorpe Benefits, we pride ourselves in offering custom solutions related to wellness education and health promotion. We intend to continue examining the available virtual medical services here in Canada so that we can help our clients determine a viable business case and help them make the best possible decisions.

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