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Updated: December 14, 2020

Mainebiz forum tells businesses that telemedicine is here to stay, and why

Screenshot / Mainebiz Pat Keran, vice president of product and innovation at UnitedHealthcare, speaks out on the business benefits of telemedicine at the Mainebiz Health Care Forum last Thursday.

The use of remote technologies to deliver medical care has become big business during the pandemic but is more than a passing fad, a panel of health industry experts said at the 2020 Mainebiz Health Care Forum, held virtually last Thursday.

The panel, led by the Maine Bureau of Insurance’s director of consumer health care, Joanne Rawlings-Sekunda, told a group of nearly 200 registrants why they should pay attention to the growing popularity of virtual care, and how it may ultimately benefit the bottom line for their businesses.

The use of telemedicine — or telehealth, as it’s sometimes called — has skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic. One measure, cited by Rawlings-Sekunda and by a Mainebiz feature in September: After a national average of 13,000 telehealth visits a week by Medicare beneficiaries before the public health emergency, that number shot to 1.7 million by the end of April.

“Providers have really upped their game in response to demand,” Rawlings-Sekunda said. “It's been an absolute revolution, just since last spring.”

The increase has been a boon for payors, providers and patients, according to the panel. The group comprised Peter Hayes, president and CEO of the Healthcare Purchase Alliance of Maine, an advocacy group in Brunswick; Pat Keran, vice president of product and innovation at national health insurance company UnitedHealthcare; and Dr. Martin Wesolowski, health plan medical director of Martin’s Point Health Care, a provider and insurer headquartered in Portland.

When used effectively, telenabled medical services improve access to care, reduce its cost and ultimately enhance the quality of care for patients.

“This is a tool that can make sure that folks are receiving the right care at the right time at the right place,” said Hayes.

Remote meeting technologies like Zoom are especially valuable in a rural state like Maine, where a patient’s primary care can hinge on access to a physician or a clinic hours away. That comes in handy for health care providers too, Wesolowski noted.

“If the roads are terrible, or a tree has come down and you're not going to make it to the office, telehealth affords [a provider] the opportunity to maintain continuity of care,” he said.

Better access to care means better quality care, but not only because a long drive can be eliminated.

“One of the big misunderstandings is that you’re getting less quality, but that’s not necessarily true,” said Hayes. Research has shown that up to 85% of primary care can be delivered as effectively via telehealth as in person, he said.

Keran said that telemedicine has evolved from simply a way of triaging basic medical treatment to a tool for providing a wide range of services, including primary care, urgent care, behavioral health care and specialized services such as occupational therapy.

The results have been positive for UnitedHealthcare, he said, noting, "We're seeing that there is a great level of effectiveness in treating a patient from a virtual environment."

Telemedicine also increases access to specialist consultations and medical second opinions, which can prevent unnecessary procedures and lead to better outcomes, according to Hayes.

“Telehealth can be equal in quality or in some cases even an enhancement to quality,” he said.

Wesolowski cautioned that telemedicine is "not going to replace face-to-face visits, and there are going to be follow-up visits that need to happen face to face." However, he said, research shows "you can reduce a lot of those [unnecessary] procedures, which is great for the member, the patient and the person footing the bill from the employer side."

By reducing unnecessary services and avoiding the need for more acute, in-person services, telemedicine ultimately leads to cost savings that benefit employers, all three panelists agreed.

Hayes cited an Oklahoma police association that utilized telemedicine services in its health plan, and as a result saw a 40% reduction in plan premiums over six years.

Keran said that telemedicine "encourages members to become better stewards of their care, and to engage with the system.

"I can now manage my care better from the convenience of my own home. A barrier is lifted. That, in its own nature, is going to bring down the cost of care."

Telemedicine may also allow businesses to offer health services that otherwise would be impractical. Workplace health clinics, for example, are usually only viable for employers of a certain size, but telemedicine services can allow multiple small businesses to piggy-back on other clinics and in so doing bring medical care directly to the workplace.

"Coupled with clinics, telehealth can really be a physician extender," Hayes said. "It really removes a lot of the cost barrier."

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