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Could telemedicine boost the health and productivity of UK workers?



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With the average waiting time for a patient to see a GP in the UK rising by 30 per cent last year to nearly two weeks, and employee sickness seen as major cost to UK companies, Mary O’Brien co-founder of VideoDoc – a pioneering provider of online GP services – asks if telemedicine could reduce the nation’s employee sick bill and create healthier and more productive employees?

telemedicine

Telemedicine brings the doctor’s house call into the 21st century, offering timely, safe and effective online healthcare services. It enables people to ‘see’ their GP virtually using their smartphone, computer or tablet at the office or at home, at their own convenience. For employees there are many advantages. They no longer have to take time off work for GP appointments, get frustrated waiting for slots to become available, travel to their surgery or arrange childcare to cover their appointments. And, with many telemedicine services operating seven days a week covering more than 12 hours a day, people can access immediate appointments that suit them.

A growth market in the waiting

Currently, the UK market for telemedicine is in its infancy, but this is set to change. Last year, PwC suggested the global market for ‘connected healthcare’ will expand a third every year to reach £37bn by 2020, and the UK is likely to grab 5 per cent, or £2bn of this.

And, according to the Willis Towers Watson 2016 Emerging Trends in Health Care Survey, more than 67 per cent of employers with more than 1,000 employees will have introduced a telemedicine benefit by the end of the year, and that level is expected to rise to 90 per cent by 2018.

One key driver for growth is the growing difficulty people face trying to see their GP. Waiting times for appointments have reached record levels – an issue that Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs Council, said is her ‘greatest fear’. Helen believes that if people are waiting three to four weeks to see their GP then the ‘non-urgent stuff becomes urgent.’

Failure to see a GP can also mean that people still battle into work when ill, spreading their germs and reducing productivity levels. 2016 by office firm Staples showed that 31 per cent of people admitted coming into work knowing they had an infectious illness and that they were putting their colleagues at risk.

The cost of illness

Then there is the staggering cost of sickness in UK companies. The figures are striking: ‘Sick days’ cost the UK economy an average of £522 a year per employee (that’s over £15 billion a year overall), according to the CIPD’s 2016 absence management report and, a total of 200 million days are lost to absenteeism every year. On average, employees are absent for six and half days every year –  with the main cause of a sick day being a ‘minor’ illness – so having instant access to an online GP and immediate diagnosis could bring these figures down.

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Mary O'Brien

Mary O’Brien

There is also a growing wellbeing agenda in UK organisations. Employers are waking up to the importance of looking after their employee’s physical and mental wellbeing and increasingly looking at new ways of doing so. There is growing recognition about the link between good employee health and better performance and an understanding that it can reduce absence rates and increase engagement and productivity. Some companies are introducing wellness initiatives such as providing healthy food in the staff canteen, workplace gyms, encouraging staff to cycle to work, and training managers to support their staff in times of stress.

And, with health insurance being one the highest benefit costs for employers to deliver, many companies are seeing the attraction of offering site health MOTs, wearable devices so employees can track their fitness levels and telemedicine services as alternative and more cost effective ways of investing in their workforce health and fitness. The growing reliance on technology will also be a key driver influencing the growth in telemedicine, with usage expected to be particularly amongst tech-savvy younger employees.

So long to the doctor’s surgery

A 2015 report from Salesforce entitled ‘The State of the Connected Patient 2015‘ detailed the potentially huge shift in how patients will interact with their providers, particularly younger patients. The report highlighted that 60 per cent of millennials supported the use of telemedicine to eliminate face-to-face GP visits and 71 per cent said they’d like to see their providers use an app to book appointments, share health data and manage preventive care.

So for employers there are many advantages to be gained by embracing telemedicine. By providing access to timely, online GP services when they need it, their employees receive expert medical advice in an easy, flexible way that suits them and they can get back on the road to recovery and productivity more quickly. Investing in their workforce health and wellbeing will also go a long way to promoting a happier, more engaged and productive workforce – something high on the wish list of every CEO.

About the author

Journalist and editor Kathryn Reilly has worked in consumer, contract and medical writing for more than 20 years.

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