Willy Wonka invented Wonka Vision — technology that allowed him to take a candy bar, shrink it and send it whizzing through the air where people could pluck it out of their TVs. Although patients won’t be able to pull doctors out of their flat screens, the burgeoning field of telemedicine is allowing people to consult medical professionals for a wide range of ailments and illnesses from home or work.
Insurer Aflac Inc. announced last November that it will partner with Scottsdale, Arizona-based MeMD to add telemedicine services to its group critical-illness plan. The new services were expected to become available in January.
Aflac is the latest insurer to add telemedicine to its roster of health care options. Boston-based telemedicine provider American Well announced last October that it will partner with Blue Cross Blue Shield Association health plans to expand their telemedicine services, and Anthem Inc., then known as WellPoint Inc., teamed with American Well in 2014 to offer telemedicine services to 3.5 million of its health-plan subscribers, according to published reports. UnitedHealth Group initiated a pilot program in 2014 as well in Nevada.
As with other industries, employees using online services are looking for ways to receive the same quality products they receive at brick-and-mortar institutions. Telemedicine allows a doctor to enter a patient’s living room via a computer screen or smartphone to address a wide array of ailments and illnesses. Aflac executives thought the technology would reduce medical costs for employees, so they decided to invest.
“One thing that telemedicine will do to impact the insurance community overall is offer alternatives that are technology-based, digital-based, video-based that offer the same quality of care, but in a way that people prefer to access it,” said Stephanie Shields, Aflac’s vice president of strategy planning and product development.
Instead of waiting at a doctor’s office, 64 percent of patients said they would be willing to have doctor visits via video telehealth, according to American Well’s 2015 telehealth survey.
“I think for today’s workforce, people really have to think beyond traditional benefits and think about engaging in workforces that are digital,” said Jill Maguire-Ward, chief people person for General Assembly, a private-school organization that offers telemedicine to its employees. Telemedicine “started off as an experiment that paid off extremely well.”
As it is, Aflac’s plan charges users $35 per medical consultation and offers reimbursement for up to six consultations per year. Changes to the health care industry because of the Affordable Care Act have also contributed to the rise in telemedicine usage, said American Telemedicine Association CEO Jonathan Linkous.
The average deductible for an insured worker in 2015 is $1,077, up 67 percent from 2010 and 255 percent from 2006, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s 2015 Employer Health Benefits Survey. This is forcing people to look for low-cost alternatives such as telemedicine. And because more people, particularly low-income individuals, are now insured, telemedicine has become a popular option for them, Linkous said.
“I think we’re just at the very beginning of what this will mean for transforming the delivery of health care,” Linkous said.