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Future Look |

Telemedicine Thrives Amid COVID-19 Outbreak

d8_06-07-2020

While the COVID-19 outbreak has wreaked havoc on many industries, it’s been a boon to many others.

One industry that has seen its stock rise the past month is telemedicine, which has proven to be especially essential amid the global pandemic. Telemedicine platforms are uniquely positioned for a health crisis such as this when it’s recommended that patients who could be cared for at home don’t go to the doctor so as not to increase the likelihood they contract and spread the virus and contribute to clogging up a health-care system that is already stretched thin.

“By using virtual care for much regular, necessary medical care, and deferring elective procedures or annual checkups, we free up medical staff and equipment needed for those who become seriously ill from COVID-19,” wrote Dr. Lee H. Schwamm in the Harvard Health Blog. “Additionally, by not congregating in small spaces like waiting rooms, we thwart the ability of the virus to hop from one person to another. Keeping people apart is called ‘social distancing.’ Keeping health-care providers apart from patients and other providers is ‘medical distancing.’ Telehealth is one strategy to help us accomplish this.”

The concept of telemedicine isn’t new, of course. In fact, 88% of organizations offered telemedicine services in 2019, according to WorldatWork’s “2019 Inventory of Total Rewards Programs & Practices” survey. The utilization of the service, however, is extremely low in comparison, as Mercer’s “National Survey of Health of Employer-Sponsored Health Plans” found that just 9% of employees used the service in 2019.

d8_06-07-2020Mary Kay O’Neill, partner and clinical services consultant at Mercer, surmised the reason for that is as simple as the saying “old habits die hard.”

“Using telemedicine requires a behavior change from people,” she said. “So, if you’ve never done it and you have experience going to your physician who is reasonably good, you might wonder why you’d call somebody for that service instead. With anything new, there’s always that ‘barrier-to-entry’ element.” 

Now, in the middle of a global pandemic, a behavior change is being forced. While it’s too early to point toward data indicating a significant rise in utilization, it’s reasonable to deduct that there’s been an uptick in patients using telemedicine solutions across the globe. In recent weeks, there’s been numerous local governments taking action to make telehealth services more readily available.

In the United Kingdom, the NHS has launched a new online tool to manage coronavirus queries, with over 70,000 people accessing the tool in less than a week. 

In China, 50% of all medical care has been moved online. 

In the United States, reimbursement restrictions on telehealth for Medicare patients will be waived following the passage of the coronavirus emergency funding package and insurers are waiving telehealth fees.

While the barriers to entry have been breached because of this pandemic, it’s worth wondering if telemedicine has staying power in a post-COVID-19 world. O’Neill, in rather prescient fashion, blogged about whether the outbreak would be a “tipping point” for telehealth back in late February. Much of what’s held back its widespread adoption — that is, various regulations — are likely to return once the storm has passed.

However, it’s possible both doctors and patients will see the benefits of use, triggering it to be accessed more prevalently.

“There will probably be a huge lobby to not revert from a regulatory perspective in a way that would limit physicians from providing care in this way,” O’Neill said. “But it will be interesting to see if people experience the convenience of telehealth interaction with their own physician if that will hurt the vendors in the space or if the familiarity with the process will increase that utilization with those vendors.”

O’Neill added that she’s hopeful a compromise can be reached, as it’s a way to ultimately lessen the strain on the health-care system with quick, convenient solutions.

“Everyone is trying to make it as easy as possible to have their medical needs met without having to show up — bringing care to patient and not the patients to care,” she said. “To see what happens as patients and physicians get used to doing this kind of interaction and figuring out about how to focus this in the longer-term for delivering care in this way.”

How the Coronavirus Is Forcing Organizations to Better Prepare for the Future

As businesses continue to react and adapt to the curveball being thrown at them in the form of COVID-19, there are practical lessons to be learned that should prove beneficial in the future.

Whether it’s an organization’s nonexistent leave policy, or their lack of work flexibility, the new coronavirus is shining a bright light on any vulnerabilities an organization might have. While this can be difficult to sift through, it will force organizations to reexamine what policies and practices they have in place and whether they should adjust.

One thing has become clear during what has now been declared a “national emergency” by President Trump: If your organization isn’t technologically equipped to operate with a mostly-remote staff, it’s at a severe disadvantage — now and in the future.

“Organizations, if they haven’t already, will need to have a much more centralized way to collaborate on work together because those digital needs will become so much more important,” said Laura Butler, senior vice president of people and culture at Workfront.

In the interim, Butler said she believes organizations that have been forced into having the majority or all of their employees work remotely can leverage this as a new way to evaluate employees while also learning how to better connect the remote workforce going forward.

“This has the potential to have more organizations hiring people in different locations and seeing that they’re still productive,” Butler said. “If we harness this opportunity, that’s what could happen. There’s also tremendous potential in putting everyone on an equal playing field in terms of getting work done and collaborating and also driving the accountability of work.”

Another factor that plays into handling a crisis like the coronavirus is instilling a strong culture. Organizations that already have one in place can take these situations in stride. Part of that strong culture includes a willingness to allow remote work, paid-leave options and an overall community that supports employees in tough times.

“It’s important that you’re checking in with people as human beings and understand what’s going on in their life, particularly in such a stressful event,” Butler said. “We are going to have to create new ways of establishing that sense of community and doing that online. Not everyone has the tools or the skills to manage that effectively virtually. We’re even looking at some of the things on LinkedIn Learning that are helping with virtual learning, such as best tips for working remotely effectively and a lot of those are culture items.”

Ultimately, Butler said she feels the situation will accelerate the future of work and, as a result, it will likely open up the possibility of a more global workforce for organizations that might have been reluctant to have one based on productivity concerns.

“It’s forcing people to get competent in how to manage virtual people quickly and sometimes that’s a barrier,” Butler said. “This is going to force them to develop that competency and challenge the status quo.”

Organizations that already have a strong culture in place can take crises in stride. Part of that strong culture includes a willingness to allow remote work, paid-leave options and an overall community that supports employees in tough times.

Automation Alert: 5 Steps to a Digital Age Transformation

Putting your organization through a digital transformation is a daunting yet necessary task that many companies face.

While most businesses realize automation will improve their efficiency and maximize ROI, figuring out where to begin the process is a challenge within itself.

Mercer has laid out a five-step process for organizations to follow to achieve successful digital transformation and automation strategy.

Step No. 1

As a first step, identify the functions in your organization that need to be automated and the ones that can remain manual.

Assigning high-volume, business-critical tasks that most people would be happy to give up to a software bot frees up the department in question to provide faster and more accurate service, save money and give people more interesting things to do. However, not every job is ripe for automation. For example, tasks that truly benefit from a human touch might be best left alone. The same goes for processes that may be monotonous but require very little manpower and don’t warrant the cost of automation.

“You really need to find things that have the high transaction volumes, the high manual steps, high ability to rules to automate them and that’s what you need to focus on,” said Karen Piercy, principal at Mercer. “Most organizations need to come up with an ROI for automation. When you look at jobs that may seem super manual, but have low volumes, those might not meet the criteria and it might just stay better manual. When you’re looking at automating something, look at your current technology and see how you can improve that process.” 

Step No. 2

The next step is to understand who is responsible for carrying out the process. Each scenario will be different. For example, an off-the-shelf robotic process automation (RPA) product for a standard business process may suffice, but more unique and complex processes might require custom-built solutions. Before choosing a solution for the process in review, companies will need to know exactly who carries out the process, how often, what other systems might be indirectly affected, and who’s counting on the results.

Steps No. 3 and 4

Total rewards professionals can play an integral role in the third and fourth steps of this digital transformation. Meeting employees where they are and including them in the conversation when it comes to automating processes in the business is critical.

When talk of automating processes begins, the rumor mill kicks into high gear. Employees get concerned about how their jobs might change and whether layoffs loom on the horizon. Organizations should get ahead of the curve and communicate proactively and transparently about their automation strategy. Keep people at the heart of transformation efforts and help them understand the benefits that automation will bring to the organization and, if applicable, to them as individuals.

If automation will lead to job losses or changing roles, be prepared to outline the company’s plans for reskilling and reorganizing roles. Also, keep in mind that the message may vary for different stakeholder groups.

“You want to use technology to support the way employees, managers and leaders interact with HR,” Piercy said. “If you’re looking at your HR function that way based on your interactions with employees, managers, leaders and other customers, then you really want to look at the employee experience in terms of using the technology. You really need to look at the technology and whether you’re making it easy for the employees.”

Step No. 5

The final step of the process, according to Mercer, is setting a realistic timeline to accomplish this digital transformation. Part of the planning process includes identifying key stakeholder groups — those affected by the automation — and sharing expectations for how the changes will play out in the short term and further down the road. While it’s common for companies to set aggressive goals for the launch, it’s important to remember that automation doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

The timing may be impacted by any number of other initiatives, such as technology platform changes, acquisitions or divestitures that compete for resources and could alter the automation plan. For nearly every large company — and many smaller companies, as well — automation is an inevitability, as speed, precision and flexibility are requisites for success.

Companies that take advantage of automation to cut costs and maximize the potential of their employees will be the true winners of the digital age.

Brett Christie is managing editor of WS Daily