The days of the traditional nine-to-five, when work stopped as soon as we stepped outside the office door, are long gone. Remote working and the trend for a ‘blended’ work and home life is now the norm, enabled by the development of smartphones and tablets, cloud servers and apps that allow constant communication between employees and clients, customers and corporations.

The combination of rapid changes in consumer technology and consumerisation of healthcare have led to telemedicine evolving way beyond “a phonecall with a nurse”. Telemedicine is the remote provision of timely, safe and effective healthcare and it’s already being used by healthcare providers worldwide to improve access to services by removing the barriers of distance, cost, demand and a shortage of providers.

We’re not just talking about providing critical care to remote global regions. Here in the UK, while many UK employees live near their GP surgery, many others will be working at out-of-town business parks and commercial centres, or will find it difficult to take time off to visit the doctor. High demand and the increased pressure on the NHS as a provider may also cause delays in booking an appointment and receiving the care they need. Employees may see it as a challenge to arrange time to book an appointment on the phone, find a free slot, arrange time to attend the appointment, and attend the appointment, often having to take up to a half day off work for this. For employers – whose biggest resource in terms of productivity is time – those delays are important. For pressured employees – who will have to do the work no matter what, and who may at times even see their job as more important than their health – this could be potentially harmful.

Responding to the market

Consumers and employers are demanding more. This has led Vitality to develop its own telemedicine product and this year launch the Vitality GP service, offering members convenient access to a GP who can consult, prescribe and refer on to further services. We know that the UK is set to be one of the key adopters of telemedicine, with a projected spend of £252 million by 20151. Globally, the telemedicine market is forecast to grow to £14.3 billion by 2015 compared with £6.2 billion in 20102. Fifty per cent of World Health Organisation members are developing telemedicine solutions3.

For employers, those numbers translate into real-time, day-to-day benefits. When integrated into an employee wellness programme, telemedicine can reduce time taken off for illness, doctor appointments and follow-up care or consultations. For example, in the first three months of introducing Vitality GP, VitalityHealth has saved our members the equivalent of up to two years – time that would otherwise have been spent away from the workplace travelling to GP surgeries or maybe waiting in a long phone queue to book an appointment4.

How telemedicine works

The foundation of any telemedicine offering is smoother, smarter, integrated healthcare. That might mean enabling patients to access their notes via an app on their phone; to contact their healthcare provider by email; to share medical data from blood pressure or heart monitors to doctors; to have a video consultation with a GP at a time that suits the patient, not simply the practice; and obtain a referral without having to visit a GP in person. Faster access to healthcare can result in less time taken off work, due to prompt diagnosis and treatment, and a better outcome – particularly if worsening conditions are caught early. The result is that both individuals and organisations can schedule their time more effectively and so reduce the impact of illness on productivity. In the US, a recent study from Towers Watson found that employers could save up to $6 billion per year if their employees routinely engaged in remote consultations for appropriate medical problems, rather than visiting the doctor or Accident & Emergency centres5.

A cost-effective benefit

Telemedicine is increasingly competitively priced as technology costs fall, and consumer attitudes are changing, as they move from viewing telemedicine as an exciting add-on to their private medical insurance, to an expected part of their health package. VitalityHealth and other insurers are now including telemedicine as standard, and in the US, 74% of large employers will offer telemedicine in their workplaces by 20166.

At Vitality, we recently asked members how they felt about telemedicine. In total, 73% of respondents agreed that a 24/7 GP helpline is a valuable additional service to customers, and 71% said that the service shows real innovation when looking after the health needs of its customers7. Of our users, nearly 9 in 10 (88%) would recommend the Vitality GP they saw. In short, telemedicine is an attractive (and cost-effective) benefit for staff who feel better valued by their employer.

The importance of integration

Done well, telemedicine provides great healthcare for individuals while delivering improved productivity to employers. However, to get it right, remote healthcare services must be fully integrated within a business’s overall health offering.

To be effective, programmes must be much more than a “bolt on”. The most effective programmes are fully attuned to the needs of the specific workforce – whether that’s offering online triage to give time-pressed workers quick access to medical expertise, video physiotherapy consultations and exercise classes to individuals with musculoskeletal problems, or access to online counselling for those with mental health issues. For companies that rely on retaining skilled employees, telemedicine that provides remote case management for long-term chronic conditions, such as cancer or heart disease, may be crucial.

Communicating the benefits

As well as integration in the workplace, good communication is essential in order to drive engagement. Making telemedicine available to all staff; prompting its use with regular emails and other communications; opening the service to family members; providing space within the workplace – such as a private room – for staff to use for virtual consultations; and using staff case studies (with permission) to highlight the benefits, are all easy and effective ways to boost take-up. Employers can then use key measures to monitor and assess the success of their investment in telemedicine: confidence in the quality of the clinical services provided; the cost of services related to any improvement in productivity; the experience of users and satisfaction of employees; and effective, ongoing innovation and integration. For example, Vitality GP has received high levels of user feedback and as noted above nearly 9 in 10 users (88%) would recommend the GP they saw to others. VitalityHealth is an example of an innovative insurer who is keen to engage with employers to support their health and wellness strategies, rather than just focussing on minimising the price of healthcare they receive.

Telemedicine is now firmly part of mainstream medicine and the increasing support of insurers means it is becoming the norm in the workplace. With potentially millions of pounds worth of productivity savings to be made, it’s a benefit that employers simply cannot afford to ignore.

How VitalityGP works

  • One-to-one virtual access via a smartphone or tablet to a fully qualified GP at employees’ convenience.
  • The GP can prescribe private prescriptions, or refer patients for tests and follow-up treatments.
  • Vitality GPs authorise most treatments without needing to contact Vitality for approval.

 

Vitality GP results

  • A popular benefit: We have been completing over 128 consultations a week on average – a total of just over 1,800 in the first 14 weeks.
  • A valued, high quality service: On average, more than half of our completed consultations received post-consultation feedback. Members continue to provide great feedback about our service: we’ve received high levels of user feedback and nearly 9 in 10 users (88%) would recommend the GP they saw to others. Hundreds of members have received further health support, including onward referral and wellness coaching by GPs.
  • Reducing lost productivity: We’re also helping people save time, and improve productivity – by eliminating travel time and long wait times we have already saved the equivalent of up to 2 years in lost productivity in just the first 14 weeks.
  • Spending longer with patients: It means we can also spend longer with patients – average consultation duration of 12 minutes compared to a national average of 8-10 minutes.

Sources:

1Primary Care: Working Differently, Deloitte Centre for Health Solutions

2Primary Care: Working Differently, Deloitte Centre for Health Solutions

3 Telemedicine, Opportunities and developments in Member States, World Health Organisation, 2015

4VitalityHealth data, 2015

52014 Health Care Changes Ahead Survey, Towers Watson

6Annual Survey 2015, National Business Group on Health; www.businessgrouphealth.org

72014 Autumn Launch Research, Immerse for Vitality

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