Survey Finds Increased Utilization of Virtual Care, Deferral in Preventive Care Among US Employees

A survey by Willis Towers Watson finds significantly increased use and noted satisfaction in virtual care among the US workforce amid the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic.

Polling employees on their health and retirement benefits annually over the past 2 decades, the 2020 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey by Willis Towers Watson (WTW) was highlighted as a special edition looking at the impact of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and its associated economic hardships on US employees.

For this year’s poll, WTW surveyed 4898 US employees of large private sector organizations in October 2020 on a myriad of aspects, notably, the exponential growth of virtual care and telemedicine, as well as deferral in medical care precipitated by the pandemic.

In first delving into the rise of telehealth, the survey indicates that nearly half of respondents (47%) have used virtual care this year, marking a substantial increase from just 17% of employees in last year’s survey. When asked on the comparable efficacy between virtual and in-person consultation, 8 in 10 employees (79%) regarded both approaches as equally effective, with 1 in 4 rating virtual care as better.

Moreover, the benefits of virtual care were seen prominently for low-income employees who were more than 40% more likely to say they got the care they needed when using virtual care. Employees with mental health issues were also significantly more likely to say they are receiving the care they need through virtual care.

“Employers were quick to expand and educate employees on how to access virtual care, and employees–especially those who were hesitant to access traditional medical care–took advantage of it,” Julie Stone, managing director of Health and Benefits at WTW, said in a statement. “While most employees used virtual care for regular screenings and checkups, a significant number were able to utilize it for diagnosis and treatment of a new illness, chronic conditions, and importantly, mental health services.”

In another key takeaway from the survey, 44% of respondents were reported to have deferred medical care since the start of the pandemic, with 42% of this group citing money concerns and 61% noting fears of COVID-19 exposure. Among those who deferred care, nearly 3 in 10 employees (29%) said their health suffered as a result of cancelling an appointment or treatment, while 40% expect their health will suffer.

Looking at a post-pandemic world, 29% of employees who deferred care said they will increase their health care use when the pandemic ends, a sentiment shared starkly among those with chronic conditions as 53% of this subgroup who deferred care reporting plans to increase health care use.

In addressing this deferral in care, Jeff Levin-Scherz, MD, co-leader of Health Management Practice at WTW, said in an email exchange with The American Journal of Managed Care® that data points to a substantial decrease in preventive care during the pandemic. This could have significant implications for employers as severity of undetected conditions, such as cancer, may intensify over time and subject both the employer and employee to higher health care costs.

“Employers can use their communications channels to encourage their members to keep children up to date on pediatric vaccines, which can prevent epidemics and lower total costs–they can also encourage cancer screening at recommended intervals–and in the case of colon cancer screening they can offer access to home testing which is a reasonable alternative to colonoscopy for those not at high risk-based on family or personal history,” said Levin-Scherz.

“Employers have also increased access to virtual care—which has improved access to much-needed mental health services, and is a promising way to improve chronic disease care, too.”