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Virtual Care Is Here to Stay, and That’s a Good Thing


Published Mar 10, 2022 • by Dr. Tim Law, Vice President and Executive Medical Director, Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield

Employers and business owners have seen many challenges in the two years since the pandemic began. From shut downs and capacity limits to rising costs and labor shortages, there have been many headwinds to operating a successful business.

Another challenge facing businesses of all kinds has been keeping employees healthy and on the job.

As a health insurance provider, Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield wants to ensure that people have access to care close to where they live and work. During the pandemic, when even health care availability was limited, this access often turned to virtual care.

Highmark’s telehealth usage increased in 2020 by more than 3,600% from 2019, with more than 3.5 million claims processed for telehealth services.

In 2021, even as many COVID-related restrictions were lifted and members felt more comfortable resuming in-person care, telehealth use by Highmark members remained nearly unchanged, with more than 3.3 million claims processed for virtual services.

While in-person care, face to face with a doctor, is important, the numbers show that members have also adapted to virtual care, which can help remove barriers such as traveling distance, patient mobility and transportation issues, scheduling difficulties, and apprehension about going to a doctor’s office and being around other sick patients.

Behavioral health treatments were the most used virtual care services for Highmark members in 2021. This is important because virtual care can also help to remove some of the stigma associated with such treatment, which means more people are getting the care they need.

Treating Behavioral Health Conditions Improves Health Care Affordability

Highmark claims data show that 82% of costs related to behavioral health are spent treating depression, anxiety, and substance use disorder. Also important to employers, members who have been diagnosed with a behavioral health condition and at least one chronic condition have health care costs that are two to three times the amount of a member with no behavioral health diagnosis.

That’s why Highmark has added many new virtual behavioral care providers for members in recent months. Meru Health, for example, is a 12-week, evidence-based program to treat depression, anxiety, and burnout via a discreet smartphone app. Highmark is also working with the provider NOCD to improve diagnosis and treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder through virtual visits with therapists specializing in exposure and response prevention.

Additionally, we have been offering Well360 Virtual Health for members as young as 10 years old to talk with a board-certified physician online, with access to behavioral health therapy typically much faster than in person care, as well as medications for those over 18 years of age. We also offer access to Bright Heart Health for online support for members struggling with eating disorders, substance use disorder, alcohol use disorder, opioid use disorder, and more.

Earlier in 2021, Highmark contracted with Ria Health, a technology-enabled telehealth medical practice that focuses on treating alcohol use disorder by combining medically assisted treatment with digital tools to help members track and record progress.

Chronic Conditions Can Affect Worker Productivity

Highmark has also launched new virtual care services for members dealing with chronic pain and with diabetes, with additional services for depression and hypertension coming soon.

Chronic musculoskeletal (MSK) problems can not only be costly but can lead to missed time and reduced productivity at work. To help employers better manage these issues, Highmark launched Well360 Motion with SWORD for self-funded employer groups earlier this year. This virtual MSK care program pairs members with a licensed physical therapist, who assesses their pain and tailors a program to their unique needs utilizing wearable FDA-listed motion sensors to evaluate real-time biofeedback as members go through their exercise sessions.

Diabetes is also a costly chronic condition. According to the American Diabetes Association, the annual cost of diabetes is estimated to be $327 billion, which includes $237 billion in direct medical costs and $90 billion in reduced productivity. Better management of diabetes can significantly reduce those costs and the associated lost productivity.

That’s why Highmark launched Well360 Diabetes Management, a virtual care program powered by Onduo, a Verily company, for adults with type-2 diabetes. As part of Highmark’s Living Health model, the program is designed to give members simple, personalized, and proactive support to better manage diabetes, improve health outcomes, and reduce costs.

Once enrolled, members are assigned a care coordinator to develop a personalized management plan and help with medication compliance, healthy eating, exercising, and more. Other Onduo features include a virtual health clinic with access to endocrinologists and other clinicians, remote prescriptions, and care coordination with primary care physicians.

So, when you add it up, virtual care is here to stay — with increased access to care and tools that help manage chronic conditions for increased productivity and lower health care costs. That is a great development for employers, businesses, and patients alike.