When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, virtual care was in its infancy. Then overnight it seemed that patients were connecting with their clinicians by phone, computer or SMS, not only for medical advice but also for prescriptions, referrals, lab work and diagnostic tests.
Fast forward three years and virtual care platforms are here to stay. Almost a third (29 percent) of private health benefits plans include a virtual healthcare program, reports the 2023 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey.
“Virtual care is the number-one add today, by far,” says Rod Ezekiel, Western Canada Regional Director, Sales, TELUS Health, provider of the TELUS Health Virtual Care platform. “Patient satisfaction has been very high, with 92 percent of users rating the service five out of five stars on the app at the end of their clinical encounter.”
“Employers are very pleased with the feedback from their employees,” adds Kevin McFadden, President of McFadden Benefits in Winnipeg.
On a personal note, “My own experience with virtual care has been tremendous,” says McFadden. “The care has been prompt, professional and impactful.” He estimates that within his own company, which made virtual care available to more than 50 employees soon after the start of the pandemic, “it has saved our employees hundreds of hours that would have been lost time.”
With all that in mind, he’s surprised that uptake by plan sponsors is not higher by now than the 29 percent reported by the Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey. He predicts it’s just a matter of time. “I believe it is still a matter of awareness that’s contributing to this statistic.”
How it’s used
TELUS Health found that 73 percent of virtual consults are initiated during the workday. Without virtual care, 72 percent of users would have gone to a walk-in clinic, 19 percent to their family doctor and 12 percent to the emergency department. Services are completed within a few hours on the same day, compared to three to seven days for an in-person visit.
Utilization data also shows increased uptake for family members. “This enhances the overall value of the employee paid program, as health services need to extend to the family with medical access when required,” says Ezekiel.
Thirty-nine percent of plan members currently use virtual care, largely due to a lack of access to family doctors, notes Robin Cooper, Senior Vice-President, Partnerships and Growth at CloudMD, adding that about six million Canadians currently do not have a family doctor.
Providing access to a medical provider or a referral to a specialist—especially for a mental health issue—goes a long way in ensuring that employee gets the help they need, adds Cooper, which in turn reduces the risk of an extended absence from work or reduced productivity while at work.
The Benefits Canada survey found that plan members with a diagnosed mental health condition or who described their mental health as poor were more likely to use virtual care, at 50 percent and 43 percent, respectively, compared to the overall result of 34 percent.
Optimizing virtual care
The onus is on employers to ensure that the delivery of their virtual care offerings is as seamless and streamlined as possible. That’s where benefits advisors and third-party providers can help, by providing targeted communications to highlight what’s available, ensuring that virtual care is offered alongside in-person care and removing barriers to access.
“Access is huge when an employee is faced with a challenge,” says Cooper. “It can take one barrier to give up.” For example, a poorly designed or confusing website can be enough for an employee to give up and fail to get the help they need.
Once in the virtual care platform, access to healthcare services must not only include all virtual options—i.e., by phone, computer, app or secure texting—but also easy referrals to in-person appointments. “Everything needs to be integrated into that platform,” says Cooper.
Such integration should extend to other group health benefits. “It is important that organizations eliminate cumbersome multiple access points by streamlining wellbeing services such as employee assistance program and virtual care in one location, via mobile app and website, for more timely access to help,” says Ezekiel, adding that TELUS Health recently launched TELUS Health One to make those connections between services.
Next, employers must partner with providers that can prove their information is evidence-based, relevant and easy to understand, says Cooper. Too many people source erroneous health information on such platforms as YouTube and TikTok and employers can counter that with a reputable virtual care platform. That in turn builds employee trust and loyalty.
Finally, there must be constant communication about the virtual services available—without making plan members uncomfortable or embarrassed about needing assistance. “Don’t make it about ‘help’,” says Cooper. Instead, market the benefits and the how-to of virtual care in a direct, stigma-free manner.
The goal is to ensure that plan members are made aware of the diverse and easy-to-access ways they can receive care. “It’s really important for them to get that help as quickly as possible when they need it,” emphasizes Cooper.