Large employer telemedicine adoption will hit 96 percent next year, survey says

By Jonah Comstock
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A new survey from the National Business Group on Health says telehealth offerings by employers are becoming nearly universal: Next year, 96 percent of employers plan to offer telemedicine services to employees, up from 90 percent this year. NBGH polled 148 large employers for the survey.

NBGH has been doing this study for four years now, and the progression has been steep, with employers reporting just 48 percent adoption in 2014.

Specifically, NBGH reported this year, 56 percent of companies are planning to offer behavior health via telemedicine in 2018, twice as many as offer it currently. 

While the rise in telehealth offerings is a good benchmark for employer interest in the technology, it doesn't serve as a proxy for how many employees are actually using telemedicine or, indeed, are even aware their employer offers it. While utilization rates are rising, only 20 percent of employers are currently reporting rates at 8 percent or higher. (For another data point, on Teladoc's Q2 earnings call, the company placed average utilization for its offerings at 6.1 percent).

As for why companies are increasingly turning toward telemedicine, the rest of the data from the survey, NBGH's Large Employers’ 2018 Health Care Strategy and Plan Design Survey, sheds some light on that. Essentially the continued rise in healthcare costs are prompting employers to look for creative ways to lower employees' health system utilization.

"Employers are recognizing that traditional cost control techniques alone aren’t able to reduce costs to the point where they are no longer a drain on the bottom line,” Brian Marcotte, president and CEO of NBGH said in a statement. “While employers continue to address costs through health care management and plan design efforts, they are also ramping up efforts to positively affect the supply side of the healthcare system by pursuing healthcare payment and delivery reform initiatives.” 

Telehealth is a piece of that, but employers are also offering services like medical decision support and second opinion services, which 66 percent of respondents plan to offer next year compared to 47 percent this year, and high-touch concierge services, which 36 percent plan to offer next year (up from 28 percent currently).

“One of the most interesting findings from the survey is that employers are focused on enhancing the employee experience," Marcotte said. "For example, there is a big increase in the number of employers offering decision support, concierge services and tools to help employees navigate the healthcare system. The complexity of the system and proliferation of new entrants has made it difficult for employees to fully understand their benefit programs, treatment options and where to go for care."