| Mar 25 2020

The Case for Digital Health in the Age of COVID-19

Kate Brown
Leader, Center for Health Innovation, Mercer

As the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly expands in the US, we’re seeing changes in how medical system capacity is being managed to prepare for the influx of critical care cases. Doctors are delaying elective procedures and postponing appointments for routine care in hopes of preventing the spread of the illness in health care facilities, and shifting patients to virtual care when possible. While we don’t know how long these changes to physician service models will last, it’s possible that they will fundamentally change how we access medical care in the future.

With more hospital and physician practices encouraging virtual care, people will start to access their primary care physicians through these new models. In some areas, for some period of time, there may be no other viable care pathway, essentially guaranteeing behavior change. In the long run, more people using virtual care or telemedicine for low acuity needs and even preventive care could be good for employers and providers – it drives down costs to employer plans, and keeps capacity in the system for higher acuity needs that must be addressed in person.

This challenging and difficult situation has created an opportunity for employers to promote existing (or new) digital health offerings. Here are three reasons to act now:

  1. The time is ripe for behavior change because health is top-of-mind for all of us right now. Just look at the massive engagement numbers we’re seeing in telemedicine – Teladoc’s usage went up by more than 50% in a 7-day period. Employers can harness this peak in interest in health by promoting virtual services that are available through employer-sponsored plans.

  2. People will need to actively seek virtual options because in-person care is limited. As we are encouraged to stay home and avoid public spaces, the need for virtual access to services is higher than ever. There are undoubtedly people in your population who could benefit from digital health solution right now for:
    • Acute medical care for routine issues: Virtual care pathways are great for anyone who might need medical care, but who does not wish to potentially expose themselves to the COVID-19 virus by visiting a brick-and-mortar office
    • Chronic conditions: Patients who would normally work with their doctor or a local pharmacist may now be open to other ways to get help managing a chronic condition. Fortunately, there are digital health tools for a wide range of chronic conditions (diabetes, weight management, hypertension, cancer, etc.) designed to help members in the safety of their own home.
    • Stress management: COVID-19 has plunged all of us in unsettling and uncertain situations, and your employees may need extra emotional well-being support. Many EAPs and other behavioral health companies have robust virtual care offerings.
  3. Some digital health vendors are offering free services right now, and others are offering short-term and flexible contracts, which can allow employers to rapidly implement services for members with urgent needs. Telemedicine vendors, in particular, are making these services available to employers. If you find it tough to keep track of all the vendor newsletters on this topic, Mercer is actively inventorying new offers, so please reach out if you’re looking for information.

In short, if you’re looking for ways to make a positive impact during this uncertain time, it’s worth considering how digital health offerings could provide real support to your employees and their families. Whether by promoting existing services or taking advantage of new free resources now available, you have options and can take meaningful action.  

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