Telemedicine was a necessity at the height of the pandemic. While occupational telemedicine was already an emerging field demonstrating comparative effectiveness to in-person services, thrusting it into full action in an emergency was not an ideal implementation strategy.
Now, it’s time to look at how the technology served patients, doctors, clinics, and employers. Assessing the benefits and challenges of occupational telemedicine going forward will help employers and clinics decide if it is an effective and cost-effective way of delivering care to those who experience health problems on the job.
What is Virtual Occupational Medicine?
Telehealth can refer to many services that involve delivering healthcare from a distance. During the pandemic, the meaning expanded even further to allow not just face-to-face online chats but voice-only telephone calls, real-time chats, and asynchronous communications.1 State and federal laws and guidelines dictate the services healthcare workers can provide via electronic communication.
The main requirement for telehealth is a secure way of communicating via a patient portal. For example, occupational medicine software must provide a HIPAA-compliant connection to protect patient privacy, whether it’s the content of the conversation between doctor and patient or the sharing of electronic medical records.
How Telehealth Services Can Manage Care and Reduce Costs
Immediately before the pandemic, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that private employers reported 2.8 million illness and injury cases among full-time employees in 2019.2 These cost $171 billion in total healthcare costs (or $42,000 per employee who needed a medical consultation).3
Because the pandemic required social distancing and the reallocation of health resources, employees had fewer options for getting treatment for job-related health issues. Despite most practitioners’ lack of training in virtual occupational care, the barriers to receiving efficient, safe, in-person care pushed telehealth to the forefront.4
Interestingly, this solution appears to have worked. During the pandemic, incident cases skyrocketed among healthcare workers, and patients reported increased satisfaction with telehealth encounters. One study showed that 78% of those who received virtual care believed it should be a permanent option, and 77% favored it as a substitute for in-person care.5
The Benefits of Virtual Occupational Medicine
There are many reasons it makes sense for patients to prefer telehealth services to in-person appointments. Some of these include:
- The ability to see a healthcare provider outside of regular hours (which is especially important for those working second and third shifts)
- The convenience of immediate access to care in rural areas located far away from medical facilities
- The ability to get an accurate and timely medical consultation without having to spend part of the day at a clinic
- The ease of following up visits
- 24/7 access to doctors that eliminate the need for voicemail messages and waiting
Employers and occupational healthcare clinics see benefits to telemedicine as well, including:
- Avoiding sending people with minor injuries to urgent care facilities
- More conservative treatments that can be managed from afar, which can prevent unnecessary tests and reduce visit costs
- An overall decrease in unnecessary hospital visits freeing up time for practitioners to deal with real emergencies
- A reduction in costs per visit of anywhere between $19 and $1216
Baby boomers stay in the workforce longer than any generation in the past.7 They are also twice as likely to experience work-related health issues.8 While cutting costs is not the primary goal of occupational medicine, it is a concern in the near future, and leaders will need data to perform a cost-benefit analysis on the best ways to seek care.
The Challenges of Occupational Medicine Telehealth
Some apparent challenges are standing in the way of adopting telehealth more broadly, including the:
- Inability to diagnose and treat many illnesses and injuries in a digital environment
- Additional tech support and clinician training required to offer these services outside of an emergency
- Need for any life-threatening injuries to receive immediate, in-person care
- Inability of liability insurance policies to keep up with new technologies
- Complexity of the occupational medical software that needs to provide video, chat, and privacy for users while also being maximally convenient
- Need to work out policies with payment entities and policymakers in each state
- Need to collect more data to identify best practices for virtual visits
Assessing the Use of Telehealth With Occupational Medicine Software
The main thing holding employees back from telehealth is unfamiliarity with the platform, which education can easily remedy. But for employers and clinics, the cost-benefit analysis needs to work out in their favor, especially since telehealth can require new technology and staff.
While research has found that most visits were resolved in a single consultation, baseline costs were lower, and fewer unnecessary tests were run, it will also be crucial to consult employee OccMed software to see the accurate data on what injuries are most common, which are potentially treatable through telemedicine, and how much facilities can save over time while still getting employees the care they need.
Net Health® Occupational Medicine tracks illness, injuries, exposures, and more to help you fully utilize patient portals. Schedule a demo to learn more.
Note: Net Health makes no representations as to accuracy, completeness, correctness, suitability, or validity of any of the information presented herein. All information is provided on an as-is basis. It is the viewer’s responsibility to verify any and all information presented herein.
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1 The Center for Connected Health Policy, “What Is Telehealth?,” Accessed April 22, 2022.
2 Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employer-Reported Workplace Injuries and Illnesses – 2020,” November 3, 2021.
3 National Safety Council, “Work Injury Costs, 2019,” Accessed April 21, 2022.
4 Work, “Toward Successful Future Use of Telehealth In Occupational Therapy Practice: What the COVID-19 Rapid Shift Revealed,” February 18, 2022.
5 International Journal of Telerehabilitation, “Telehealth for the Provision of Occupational Therapy: Reflections on Experiences During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” December 8, 2020.
6 The American Journal of Emergency Medicine, “On-Demand Synchronous Audio Video Telemedicine Visits Are Cost-Effective,” August 7, 2018.
7 Pew Research, “Baby Boomers Are Staying In the Labor Force At Rates Not Seen in Generations For People Their Age,” July 24, 2019.
8 The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), “Workers 55 to 64 Report Highest Rates of Work-Related Illness or Injury,” April 6, 2020.