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Oct. 2, 2014: Computing Now

The Doctor Is In: Bringing Telemedicine to the Workplace

Dr. Keith W. Vrbicky

While telemedicine in the workplace to date has been used more by large businesses, this is thankfully beginning to change as technology costs decrease and support increases.

Businesses of all sizes are realizing that the benefits of telemedicine in the workplace are considerable:

Ø Fewer expensive visits to the emergency room;

Ø Better employee retention;

Ø Reduced employee time away from the job.

And some companies have particularly been proactive in introducing telemedicine in the workplace. Way back in 2011, noted Modern Healthcare, Cisco expanded its use of telemedicine to reach employees at other locations and to connect San Jose, CA-based workers to specialists.

Cisco also offered primary-care remote visits to workers in Raleigh-Durham, NC, the company's second-largest U.S. campus. Modern Healthcare said "using headsets, high-definition cameras and high-tech listening devices, physicians in California can offer patient visits to workers in North Carolina. The physician doing the exam is licensed to practice medicine in both states."

Another good example – health insurer UPMC (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center) Health Plan has a program called WorkPartners providing doctor evaluation/consultant by electronic link as part of a workplace clinic product.

According to David Weir, president of UPMC WorkPartners, the payoff for using telemedicine in the workplace is substantial – in medical savings alone, a 2-to-1 return; 4-to-1 when taking into consideration productivity gains and more control of employee absences. And Weir added that telemedicine is enabling UPMC to extend the workplace clinic concept to smaller businesses.

And way up north in Maine, Hardwood Products & Puritan Medical Products has also become an avid supporter of telemedicine in the workplace. The company manufactures a wide array of products – popsicle sticks, wooden skewers, medical swaps, and tongue depressors, to name a few.

The Guilford-based company initially allowed seven employees to virtually sit down for consultations with Dr. Richard Siegel, co-director of Tufts Medical Center's Diabetes Center.

"Spending a little bit of money up front to get the telemedicine program is a value purchase," said Scott Wellman, CFO of Hardwood & Puritan. "We're able to get employees their care plan and hopefully prevent major problems down the road that would cost significantly more money."

Diabetes, according to the Diabetes Prevention and Control Alliance, is a huge health – and economic issue in the United States - and worldwide. The Alliance estimates that health spending associated with diabetes and pre-diabetes in the U.S. will skyrocket from $198 billion spent in 2010 to $500 billion by 2020.

Andrew Coburn, a rural healthcare expert and associate director of the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine, said it particularly affects rural areas.

"There is evidence in rural areas that the burden of illnesses related to chronic diseases is greater and that's because you have populations that tend to be less healthy than in the rest of the country," said Coburn. "Dealing with the chronic disease burden in rural areas is a major priority, so a system like this that addresses diabetes is pretty important from a rural perspective."

Coburn added that more work needs to be done to extend telemedicine capabilities to smaller businesses that lack the resources or HR staff to have telemedicine in a workplace clinic.

Marianne Lynch, coordinator of the Maine State Health Teleconference, suggested that chambers of commerce could "act as an aggregator to bring geographically close small businesses together to take advantage of telemedicine services."

Justin Ward, director of client services for Gray, Maine-based Patient Advocates, LLC, a privately held health management partner, summed up telemedicine's usefulness in the workplace clinic:

"This is the future – this is what companies need to be doing. Leveraging the technology to improve rural access to healthcare and to lower business' healthcare costs is a move in the right direction."

Return to: 2014 Feature Stories