Employer Health Centers Expand Virtual Care Services Amid Pandemic

A survey by Willis Towers Watson found that nearly half of employer onsite and near-site health centers expanded virtual care services during the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic, including in chronic condition management and behavioral health.

As utilization of telehealth services to replace in-person consultations grows amid the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, 48% of employers’ onsite and near-site health centers have transitioned to expand virtual care services, according to a survey conducted by Willis Towers Watson (WTW).

A poll of 107 employers with onsite or near-site health centers who participated in WTW’s 2020 Health Care Delivery Survey, conducted from August to September of that year, shows that 52% of respondents kept their health centers open to in-person visits during the pandemic.

In place of some in-person care, however, they also began to offer a myriad of virtual care services the health centers, including chronic condition management (46%), behavioral health (41%), care navigation (33%), and physical therapy (21%). Fifty-seven percent said they plan to keep the virtual care services implemented for the duration of the pandemic, and 43% committed to either adding or expanding their role in chronic care management in the future.

“With employees’ health care needs shifting amid the pandemic, health centers are looking for ways to reinvent themselves,” said Kara Speer, national practice leader, Employer-Sponsored Health Centers, WTW, in a statement. “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.”

Notably, Speer and Louis Dickey, MD, Health Management Practice consultant, WTW, detailed 4 ways that health centers are reinventing themselves amid COVID-19.

Focusing first on delivery pathways, they note that although onsite health centers will still be relevant for employers, the reduction in onsite workers may drive more use of near-site health centers and enhanced virtual care.

“Not only are health centers enhancing virtual offerings, they are also starting to reach a broader population,” said Speer and Dickey. “Fourteen percent of health centers have already expanded virtual services to a larger eligible population, and another 16% are planning or considering doing so in the future.”

Transitioning to primary care and population health, the importance of health information technology (IT) was highlighted as health centers move to ensure interoperability between their IT systems and electronic medical records in the community. A stronger integration between health centers and other vendor partners responsible for services within the care continuum, such as care management and well-being, was referenced, with the researchers saying that better integration can help to close disparities in availability of health care services.

Lastly, the researchers called for improvement in the process of finding appropriate providers in the community and coordinating care through referrals, scheduling, and follow-up, as currently less than half of health centers (48%) refer employees to high-value specialists in the community.

“Employers are increasingly interested in having health center vendors provide care navigation services for members, either through onsite staff or virtually," Speer and Dickey said.