More employers will soon pay for their employees to conduct mobile and digital office visits with their doctors. The top reason? Electronic consultations are cheaper for the employer than in-person office visits.

A new survey of 241 corporate human resource managers conducted by American Well, a developer of telehealth apps, reveals that about one-third of companies now pay for telehealth visits for covered employees and their dependents, a figure that could increase to as much as 68% of companies within two years. 39% of big companies with more than 20,000 employees pay for telehealth visits, 35% of medium-sized companies and 29% of companies with less than 1,000 employees. Consumers primarily use smartphones or tablets and less often desktop computers to schedule and attend digital visits to the doctor’s office, the survey says.

81% of companies list saving on healthcare costs as a reason they offer telehealth options to employees, the top reason selected. 78% say that want to improve access to care, 56% want to keep their workforce happy and 53% aim to improve employee productivity, according to the survey. Respondents could choose from multiple answers. The average cost for an employer to pay for a telehealth visit is $40 compared with $140 for an office visit and $750 or more for a trip to the emergency room, according to the survey. “Employers are under pressure to find ways to keep costs down,” American Well content marketing manager Sarah Natoli wrote in a recent blog. “Most respondents prioritized reducing medical costs as a goal for their telehealth program.”

Of the companies planning to roll out a telehealth program—either directly through a product from a commercial app developer or pay for digital visits as part of the coverage they provide employees—27% plan to roll out the benefit within six months and 22% within a year, the survey says.

Access to care and saving employees time are also important reasons for offering mobile health options as a benefit. “Between scheduling, traveling, and hanging around the waiting room, employees lose a lot of time with in-office visits,” Natoli says. A recent Harvard medical school study found that the average time for the typical in-office medical visit is 121 minutes, with only 20 minutes being spent face to face with a doctor, she notes.

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For telehealth visits via mobile apps, the process from downloading a mobile telehealth app to visiting with a physician takes about a day on average, according to American Well.

Among the reasons some employers give for not offering telehealth and other mobile health programs is an unclear return on investment (38%), haven’t made the time to explore a program (36%) and a general need for more information (26%), according to the survey. “Some benefits managers want to add telehealth but will wait for their health plan to integrate telehealth into their existing benefits package rather than add as new stand-alone benefit,” Natoli says.

Boston-based American Well says its telehealth and app program is now being used by 30 health systems and 40 health insurance plans including United Healthcare and the Cleveland Clinic.

 

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