Will the Coronavirus outbreak push telehealth to the tipping point?

I met with CNBC today to discuss the latest on the coronavirus and how companies should be thinking about this outbreak in terms of employee health. It’s becoming a real worry for employees – nearly half of Americans say they are concerned that they or a family member will contract the virus. Many employers have started (or are thinking about) communicating with employees to address their fears. A question we’re hearing is whether telehealth is a good option for evaluation, as a way to avoid urgent care facilities and emergency rooms where patients who are not infected could contract the virus. Telehealth has the ability to bring healthcare to the patient, rather than forcing the patient to go to a healthcare facility.

Recent findings from Mercer’s National Survey of Health of Employer-Sponsored Health Plans show that while telehealth is a ubiquitous offering among employers, utilization rates remain low, growing slowly from 8% in 2018 to 9% in 2019. But officials at one telehealth provider, Teladoc, told analysts during a recent earnings call that they are working to prepare for an uptick in the use of their telehealth tech in response to the potential spread of the virus in the U.S.

Could this be telehealth’s tipping point? We think it’s an effective first step to managing the virus because it prevents both infected patients and people with other health issues that can be treated via telehealth from congregating in healthcare facilities where the virus could be contracted or passed on. However, it’s important to ensure your vendor doesn’t over-promise and under-deliver and to make sure they have the proper protocol for handling a virus like this. If you are confident in the vendor/carrier system, there will never be a better time to communicate its availability to your employees.

Importantly, one of the ways that telemedicine might be used during this outbreak is for behavioral health – especially if people are quarantined for weeks on end. Epidemics like this can increase anxiety and depression among people, resulting in a greater need for these services. For more information on ways employers can take action, check out my post from last month’s coronavirus update. 

Mary Kay O'Neill
by Mary Kay O'Neill

Partner, Clinical Services Consultant

Register for Mercer US health news to receive weekly e-mail updates.