20% Of Employees Used Telehealth in 2021 and Declined Throughout the Year, According to Integrated Benefits Institute Analysis
- Employees Who Are Men, 18-24 Years, With High School Education or Less Use Telehealth the Least
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth use was not widely used. Use surged once the pandemic began, as people were discouraged from seeking care in person. However, employers are still concerned some employees are not receiving adequate care. Only 20% of employees sought virtual care in 2021, and overall employee use decreased throughout the year. To examine which employees are using virtual care throughout the pandemic, health and productivity research non-profit Integrated Benefits Institute conducted an analysis of data on virtual care use.
The study analyzed data from the 2020 National Health Interview Survey (July to December), and the 2021 Household Pulse Survey (April to October). Across both years, data showed that men utilized virtual care less than women. Individuals between 18 and 24 years of age were least likely to use virtual care, along with those who have a high school education or less.
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Virtual care was used most by employees in the northeast and west—with the highest use seen in urban areas, and the lowest use in rural areas across the country. Employers are rightfully concerned that there may be employees missing out on care. This data can be used to tailor communications and strategies for those employees who fall under these demographics.
“The data show us how different groups use telehealth and how use and access vary greatly among employees,” said Lead Researcher Dr. Nicole Nicksic. “While differences from location to education were expected, employers can help alleviate those disparities and ensure employees have equitable access to health care, including telehealth options. Including telehealth in a primary care model to improve individual health is an important next step with technology that is here to stay.”
Private sector employees made up the majority of the employees surveyed, however, they used virtual care less than other sectors. Among frontline workers, health care workers used virtual care the most, while food and beverage, and retail workers used it the least.
Employees who have been diagnosed with COVID-19, or anxiety and/or depression, utilized virtual care the most. For employees who are missing work due to illness, injury or disability, virtual care use increased with the number of missed workdays. Video use was more popular than phone for virtual care.
UnitedHealthcare (UHC) claims data observed the medical care virtual visits from national vendor providers and traditional providers from over 6 million members. Claims incurred from September 2020 through the end of August 2021 show that the overall number of virtual health care claims has decreased since the beginning of the pandemic, and approximately 1 in 4 subscribers used traditional and/or national virtual vendor providers for virtual visits, corroborating the national data. Interestingly, 92% of all virtual care in the time period studied was received at traditional health care providers.
“It’s clear that virtual care is here to stay. Employers should study their virtual care data closely to assure that their goals are being met. Ask basic questions: Which populations are using it the most/least? Are you filling network inadequacies with virtual options? Are you eliminating financial, geographic or ethnic barriers to care with virtual options? Are members using national vendors (if offered), or their own doctors? Does using virtual care improve leaves or PTO usage? Without firm data to support the strategy on an ongoing basis, there may be lost value on investment,” said IBI President Kelly McDevitt.
Important themes arose when summarizing guidance provided by the health and benefits professionals of several large employers:
- Large employers integrated national virtual vendor providers into their benefits plans well before the pandemic for employee convenience, cost saving to the employee, and the hope of less missed work time. See the value and need for greater access, especially as utilization skyrocketed during the pandemic.
- Data to support health care programs like virtual care are more important now than ever. While virtual care utilization data should be used to assure that access (geographic, financial etc.) gaps are being met, employers should also expand beyond costs and utilization to look at outcomes and even quality of provider care.
- Make communications focused, concise, and intentional – employers got creative (e.g., refrigerator magnets, postcards with QR codes) to send employees and their families information regarding virtual care options.
- Expand virtual care to meet the needs of all pillars of wellbeing – physical, emotional, financial, and social – and work towards a medical home model for virtual care to create more holistic health solutions and meet individuals where they are in their health care journey.