The concept of telemedicine raised concerns when it was introduced, but physicians and patients have grown more comfortable with it. (Photo: Shutterstock)

A major telehealth company is predicting 2019 will be a pivotal year in the adoption of virtual health care, as consumers and employers become more comfortable with health care delivered via digital technology.

“Nine out of ten large businesses offer some type of virtual health care,” says Dan Trencher, senior vice president of product and corporate strategy, Teledoc Health. “We’re seeing that virtual health care is not a separate and isolated way of to access health care; it’s increasingly an element in making access to care convenient to consumers.”

Teledoc has released a list of predictions for the field in 2019, emphasizing things such as how telehealth increases access to behavioral health, how specialists are increasingly using telehealth to interact with patients, and how virtual care not only improves access but also increases consumer satisfaction with their health care options.

Telehealth as part of a benefits strategy

Trencher says his company is seeing use of telehealth becoming more central to an overall benefits strategy. Although it’s become common to include some kind of “virtual visit” as a health plan benefit, Trencher notes that consumers see less benefit if virtual care is treated as an afterthought.

Related: Solving telemedicine’s low employee adoption

“It’s more than a ‘check the box’ approach,” he says. “That’s a lost opportunity we see time and time again. When employers see that telehealth care can create a broader range of services, such as behavioral health care, that can really drive utilization.”

Although the concept of telemedicine raised some concerns when it was introduced, as physicians and patients questioned whether virtual visits could be as thorough as face-to-face encounters, Trencher says time has lessened those fears.

“We hear that concern a lot less than we used to,” he says. “Today, providers and consumers are feeling greater confidence with virtual care. They’re more comfortable with it. There’s much greater recognition that when you have high quality oversight and apply clinical quality guidelines, it can be just as good as in-person care.”

A game-changer in behavioral health?

Behavioral health has become Exhibit A on how virtual care can fill in the gaps that exist in some areas of health care delivery. Trencher says Teledoc’s data shows that virtual visits for mental health care have been very effective, in an area where there can be provider shortages. And employers have taken note—since behavioral issues can have such an impact on productivity.

“Behavioral health has grown in importance among employers,” he says. “Most are recognizing that this is something that’s not separate from medical health for their employees.” He saysthe increased access to providers via telemedicine is one helpful element, but that it also can reduce the stigma that some patients feel around accessing mental health services.

“This de-stigmatizes the process for some patients, when they can access this privately,” he says. “That’s a key part of activating people who might not otherwise seek care.”

Business barriers being deleted

Trencher noted that the playing field is also becoming more favorable for telehealth as regulations become less of a barrier. He saysthat Congress recently passed laws allowing Medicare Advantage plans to do more to incorporate telehealth options, starting in 2020, and that the industry generally follows where Medicare goes.

Another barrier to effective use, Trencher says, is the sheer number of technology options available to employer-sponsored plans. “The concept of vendor fatigue has set in. Employers are overwhelmed by the number of digital solutions out there–you can’t ask consumers to have 20 different health care apps. We’re seeing consultants really latching on to solutions that can bring these things together.”

The bottom line for the virtual care industry is that telemedicine is increasingly seen as an important part of a benefits strategy, Trencher says. “I was there when HSAs were launched and became the next big thing in consumerism. What we’re seeing down the road is that virtual care will become a key element in terms of driving access to care and better health.”

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