Call Me, Ping Me if You Want to Reach Me: The Importance of Telehealth in Fighting COVID-19 

Senior woman talking on phone while having breakfast ©WavebreakmediaMicro -
Mar 12 2020

For years now, we’ve been tracking the rapid growth of telehealth as a health plan offering in our National Survey of Health of Employer-Sponsored Health Plans – along with the disappointingly slow growth in average utilization, which only reached 9% of eligible employees in 2018.  But telehealth has a potentially crucial role to play as the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak continues to expand in the US and countries around the globe. The question is, are employers willing to promote it?  

So far, we’re not seeing much evidence that they are.  Of the 235 employers responding to the Mercer Talent All Access’ COVID-19 outbreak spot survey, only 16% said they are “advertising telehealth or digital health options for non-epidemic issues so employees avoid unnecessary care in hospitals.” This seems like a missed opportunity to educate employees about existing telehealth solutions. Per the CDC, telehealth platforms can prevent patients who can be cared for at home from potentially exposing themselves or others to germs. And employees may actually be far more willing to use telehealth solutions than the utilization averages would suggest. 

In Mercer Marsh Benefits’ Health on Demand survey, which was fielded prior to the COVID-19 outbreak to more than 16,000 workers in 13 markets around the globe, the majority of workers said they would be willing to try telehealth both for “a simple health issue like a rash or a cold” and “'for a significant health issue like diabetes.” The results hold when looking at specific markets that have been significantly impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak:

  • In China, 67% of employees are willing to try telehealth for both simple and significant health issues
  • In Italy, 44% of employees were willing to try telehealth for simple health issues and 42% were willing to try tele-medicine for significant health issues
  • In the United States, 44% of employees were willing to try telehealth for simple health issues and 39% were willing to try tele-medicine for significant health issues

In addition, a third of the workers surveyed indicated they would rather use online virtual care than see a doctor face-to-face if it meant shorter wait times.

In recent weeks, we have seen local governments taking action to make telehealth services more readily available:

  • In the UK, the NHS has launched a new online tool to manage coronavirus queries, with over 70,000 people accessing the tool in less than a week
  • In China, 50% of all medical care has been moved online
  • In the US, reimbursement restrictions on telehealth for Medicare patients will be waived following the passage of a coronavirus emergency funding package and insurers are waiving telehealth fees

We expect to see more governments sponsoring telehealth platforms or taking action to promote telehealth in coming weeks. These platforms may be valuable resources to direct employees to in locations where you don’t have a telehealth solution in place. 

If you have telehealth solution, we strongly encourage you to consider promoting it to your workforce -- after confirming your vendor has the proper protocol for handling a virus like this. Employee communication assistance is available via consultancies if needed to help ensure your vendor doesn’t over-promise and under-deliver. You may find that the reason utilization has been low in the past is due to a lack of awareness and a lack of perceived need.  Well, the need has materialized, so now is the time to make sure employees know that telehealth is available and has an important – perhaps even critical -- role to play in keeping them, their families, and their communities safe and healthy. Check out this blog post by Mary Kay O’Neill for more on this topic. And this new post on telehealth by our sister company, Oliver Wyman, includes a consumer FAQ on telehealth that could be useful in shaping your own communications.  

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