How COVID-19 is shaping the future of virtual healthcare

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has driven a multitude of employee benefits changes in the past year. According to a recent survey, among them is the expansion of virtual offerings at employers’ on-site and near-site health centers.

New research from Willis Towers Watson finds that the vast majority of employers with on-site or near-site health centers either added or increased virtual care services in place of in-person visits during the pandemic. Interestingly, more than half of the centers that expanded their virtual care services plan to make those changes permanent. The Health Care Delivery survey, conducted in August and September 2020, was based on responses from 107 employers with on-site or near-site health centers.

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“Virtual care is a natural extension of the health center,” says Kara Speer, national practice leader of employer-sponsored health centers at Willis Towers Watson. “Members that have visited the health center in the past may be more likely to utilize virtual care given they know and trust the provider.”

Indeed, nearly half (48%) of health centers have increased the scope of services available through virtual care during the pandemic, and over half of them (57%) expect to keep these services permanently. Health centers now provide a variety of virtual services, including chronic condition management (46%), behavioral health (41%), care navigation (33%) and physical therapy (21%). An additional 10% are planning or considering offering more of these services virtually in the future.

“With employees’ healthcare needs shifting amid the pandemic, health centers are looking for ways to reinvent themselves,” Speer says. “Most centers no longer view themselves as a facility to provide merely in-person primary and acute care and now offer additional services, including enhanced virtual care, to complement in-person visits.”

Related: Why virtual wellness is on the rise

Other findings include the fact that 52% of respondents have kept their on-site or near-site health centers open to in-person visits during the pandemic, and employers that closed centers have either reopened at least one center (27%), kept them closed temporarily (19%) or permanently shuttered them (2%). Exactly half of respondents that were planning to expand a center or add a new center temporarily delayed or canceled those plans. Finally, 10% accelerated their on-site or near-site health center expansion plans.

“Health centers also are enhancing their efforts around population health with a focus on improving health outcomes and bridging gaps in care,” Speer adds. For example, the survey also found 43% either added or expanded their role in chronic condition management or intend to do so in the future. And 30% are expanding or planning to expand remote monitoring.

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Health centers’ plans to add or expand virtual services come at a time when more employees plan to use them. According to another Willis Towers Watson survey, this time of nearly 5,000 U.S. employees, almost half of respondents used virtual care services during the pandemic, reporting positive experiences, and 70% said they are likely or very likely to use these services in the future.

“The pandemic made many employers reevaluate the role of their health centers and the scope of services they provide,” adds Dr. Jeff Levin-Scherz, population health leader of Willis Tower Watson’s North American health and benefits practice. “Even with fewer employees at physical workplaces, we expect on-site and near-site health centers will continue to play an important role in maintaining and improving employee health.”

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Tom Starner
Tom Starner is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia who has been covering the human resource space and all of its component processes for over two decades. He can be reached at [email protected].