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4 Health and Benefits Trends Impacted by COVID-19

How the Pandemic Has Changed the Way We Think About Tech, Health, and Benefits

The pandemic had a massive impact on our world, our organizations, and our people. It’s taken a toll, both from the loss of life and health of people and how it’s affected organizational stability.

Although it’s been a challenging year, there are some important lessons to take away from this experience. The most important thing is taking what we’ve learned and creating stronger strategies and programs to prepare for whatever the future may hold.

As vaccine availability expands and the number of COVID-19 attributable deaths slowly declines, now is the time for HR and benefits leaders to take action to evaluate how to realign resources and reassess priorities to be ready for the next major challenge.
Springbuk’srecent report on health trends was based on aggregate data from more than 4,000 employers on what trends have been impacted the most by the pandemic.

1. Increases in Telemedicine

Digital access to healthcare delivery is changing healthcare. In many ways, the pandemic sped up certain parts of that change. As people got comfortable with virtual meetings, telemedicine increased significantly. It wasn’t just people, though. Providers enhanced their telehealth options as the pandemic took hold.

Just to put it in perspective, there were nearly 12 times as many telehealth visits in 2020 as there were in 2019. The increases with those under 18 and over 65 are even more impressive. They both experienced more than a 2,000% gain. This access, particularly with seniors, was vital to keeping people healthy in the midst of the pandemic.

The burgeoning use of telemedicine was driven in large part due to people accessing mental health via digital platforms versus seeking those services in person. Mental health topped the list of reasons people accessed telemedicine, at 44.3% of all visits. That’s nearly a three-fold increase from 2019 as well — when respiratory issues were the top issue for telehealth visits.

Costs were also up, both on a per-visit and per-member, per-month basis. Federal and state laws shifted during the pandemic to allow telehealth providers to be reimbursed at higher rates, much closer to a traditional in-office doctor visit.

One silver lining is that many people may prefer the convenience and safety of telemedicine going forward. While it’s hard to say how much, it’s clear people will be more aware of their telehealth options in the future.

2. Emergency Care Demand Drops

A reduction in low-acuity services, such as going to the emergency room for ear or urinary tract infections instead of a regular doctor’s office, actually dropped the overall demand for emergency care. Emergency rooms were obviously making significant changes, making room for coronavirus patients and changing their health protocols to protect workers and patients.

Overall, there was a 67% decrease in low-acuity and a 57% decrease in non-emergent visits to the emergency room. Subsequently, this followed a 186% increase in telehealth services for low-acuity visits.

With low-acuity visits costing $520 more than the typical office visit, encouraging patients to use non-emergency health resources leads to significant declines in costs for organizations and insurers.
Just as with the rise of telehealth, we can only hope that this is a long-term shift rather than a short-term one driven by COVID-19 fears. Time will tell if the status quo changes from here.

3. Decrease in Elective Surgeries

At the beginning of the pandemic, there were numerous pauses in elective procedures to accommodate demand for treating COVID-19 patients. Government entities and oversight agencies, reacting to the rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, suspended a significant portion of these procedures last year with exceptions to life-threatening cases.

Ear, nose, and throat procedures; gastrointestinal surgeries; and cardiac surgical procedures were the hardest hit. Hip and knee replacements shifted to outpatient facilities, saving more than $10,000 apiece.

What do we see happening this year?

● Patients will still be cautious about COVID-19, both for in-person procedures and subsequent care involved.
● Demand overall could decrease if non-surgical treatments are used, or symptoms subside.
● Local governments may continue to reduce or pause the availability of some elective procedures.

The impact of all of these delayed or canceled elective surgeries will likely take years to determine.

4. Mental Health and Substance Abuse Issues

Factors like isolation, stress, financial burdens, racial strife, political upheaval, work-from-home stress, and overall anxiety have increased concerns about mental health risks and the possibility for substance abuse disorders to arise.

Anxiety, stress, substance and adjustment disorders, and depression drive much of the mental health and substance abuse issues (MHSA) treatments happening today. Our report showed an increase in several categories, with women between the ages of 18 and 25 most affected by change. Other highlights include:

● Adjustment disorder treatment in women ages 26 to 38 increased significantly.
● For those under 40, alcohol and substance disorder treatments dropped.
● But for men over 50, there was a 23% increase in alcohol and substance disorder treatment in 2020.
● Treatment of women for MHSA conditions happened 50% more than men.
● MHSA treatment for those under 18 dropped significantly in 2020.

At the very beginning of the pandemic, there was a slight dip in MHSA treatments overall. However, the trend has moved upward since, and by the end of 2020, MHSA had returned to 2019 levels.

What Comes Next?

The pandemic made 2020 one of the most unusual years for managing healthcare in this country for everyone. Yet, even a unique year offers learnings that can prepare us better for what’s next.

The increase in telehealth is an exciting move that has been years in the making and made great strides among patients and providers. The hope for lower emergency room use and in-patient elective procedures offers significant cost-saving potential. The increasing demand and recognition of mental health and substance abuse opens up new opportunities for organizations as well.

If HR leaders can improve the employee experience and ensure a healthy and safe workforce through 2020, they can do anything. The lessons from the pandemic can prepare us for more of the unknowable challenges every organization faces.
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