By Dana Yockey
Our entire world has changed, dramatically, in just a few months. People are trying to adjust to a new “normal,” and must find new ways to get through daily activities.
Employees are working remotely, and are undoubtedly dealing with increased stress and anxiety as they try to find the best new work-life balance. Going to the grocery store, picking up prescriptions, and finding time to exercise are key aspects to many individuals’ wellbeing. But concern over the rapid spread of COVID-19 has drastically altered the ways in which individuals can meet those wellness needs.
Employers must be willing to make changes to help their employees adapt to changing conditions, ensuring that employees have access to the best options possible to maintain a healthy wellbeing. For example, increased stress, anxious overeating, sleepless nights, and a decreased desire to exercise could be impacting employees. Adjusting to a new normal is not easy, but having the right digital tools can help employees combat unhealthy habits.
Let’s break down some of the larger healthcare trends related to COVID-19, and how opting for virtual employee wellbeing programs is an essential move for employers.
Rise of Telehealth
Telehealth is when healthcare is provided remotely through the use of technology such as videoconferencing or phones. It allows providers and patients to connect without needing to physically be in the same room. It is real-time, two-way communication.
Prior to COVID-19, telehealth was seen as an ideal option for rural areas, helping individuals connect with specialists or providers who might not be near. However, it has been increasing in popularity over the last several years, for all types of providers and in different areas.
In 2010, 35% of hospitals had fully or partially implemented a computerized telehealth system, the American Hospital Association (AHA) reported. By 2017, that number had increased to 76%.
Telehealth helps increase health care value and affordability, according to the AHA. Telehealth can save patients time and money, reduce the need for patient transfers, as well as emergency department and urgent care center visits. It also delivers savings to payers, helps address physician burnout by reducing clinicians’ drive times and can allow more time for patients.
Numbers from the American Medical Association (AMA) also show drastic increases in telehealth on the provider side. In 2016, 14% of physicians had adopted virtual visits, with 28% reporting the same in 2019.
“Importantly, the percentage of physicians that see no real advantage to digital tools is trending downward and these tend to be among physicians over age 50,” the AMA said. “This follows general attitudes to technology seen in the U.S. population.”
With patients and providers already beginning to change how they viewed healthcare options, it’s no surprise that virtual care has quickly become embraced during a pandemic.
How COVID-19 Impacted Healthcare Delivery
Over the last couple of months, millions of individuals were urged to adhere to “stay at home” orders or follow state-mandated guidelines of “shelter in place.” Many governors told residents to only go out for necessary trips (e.g. buying groceries, picking up prescriptions). With all of those factors, the way that healthcare is being delivered has been forced to change as well.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced in March that Medicare telehealth services would be broadened, allowing beneficiaries to “receive a wider range of services from their doctors without having to travel to a healthcare facility.”
Additionally, as of April 23, nearly the entire country has enacted waivers for easing telehealth licensing and credentialing requirements, according to the Federation of State Medical Boards.
For example, Massachusetts issued an order allowing reciprocity for out-of-state healthcare providers. This would allow those providers to practice both in-person and through telemedicine.
The Health and Human Services Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) announced that providers can use tools such as Skype and FaceTime to communicate with patients. OCR will also “waive potential penalties for HIPAA violations against health care providers that serve patients through everyday communications technologies.”
Should a potential breach occur, OCR will not pursue penalties for incidents “that result from the good faith provision of telehealth services during the COVID-19 nationwide public health emergency,” according to an HHS FAQ page.
“Providers seeking to use video communication products are encouraged to use [vendors familiar with the requirements of the Security Rule], but will not be penalized for using less secure products in their effort to provide the most timely and accessible care possible to patients during the Public Health Emergency.”
Public perception of telehealth services has also evolved. A recent survey found that while only 19% of adults from around the U.S. had tried telehealth, nearly 75% said that they would consider using a telehealth service if they felt they had COVID-19 symptoms.
Furthermore, two-thirds of respondents said they are more willing to try telehealth in the future because of COVID-19.
Telehealth is a key option for providing care under the “new normal.” With social distancing measures, telehealth helps keep individuals out of waiting rooms, where they are often forced to sit closely together. Additionally, using telehealth for regular, necessary medical care can also help free up medical staff – and equipment – to focus on those who are seriously ill with COVID-19.
But what does this mean for employee wellbeing programs? How can employers ensure that their employees stay connected and stay in control of their personal wellbeing?
For example, let’s say that a single, working mother of two is currently working from home. But she is also caring for her children. Trying to find the best way to balance work and childcare might mean that certain wellbeing considerations – like nutrition and exercise – are pushed to the side. Furthermore, her stress and anxiety levels are also likely much higher than normal.
But a married man in his 40s who does not have children will be facing different challenges. While he doesn’t have to worry about childcare, maybe he’s concerned about his parents who live in a nursing home. Or he’s had to take on a second job to help make ends meet.
These two individuals need a wellbeing program, but will need different variations of a program that meets their unique needs.
At Zillion, we were already working on ensuring a smooth transition to the digitalization of healthcare. Our RestoreResilience program now helps employers reach each of their employees, from wherever they are, honing in on stress, anxiety, and sleep.
Nutrition and exercise are also components of the program, allowing our members to take back control in their daily lives and create, develop, and maintain healthy routines.
RestoreResilience pairs each member with a personal health coach for one-on-one sessions, either through phone calls or texting. Our coaches work with each individual, creating a personalized approach to wellbeing that will drive true behavior change. RestoreResilience also offers peer-to-peer support, allowing members to communicate and encourage one another.
Finally, RestoreResilience always has the latest information on COVID-19, ensuring that our members stay current on the changing environment. Other providers are also offering programs that use digital tools and telehealth to keep employees healthy.
We may never fully return to the former “normal,” including in how employee wellness programs are utilized. But staying healthy – and connected – is possible. And employees can reach health and wellness goals.
Dana Yockey, NBC-HWC, is director of coaching operations and delivery at Zillion, a leading behavior modification company, whose solutions blend technology, people, and content to deliver impactful programs, which target many of the most pervasive chronic health conditions affecting the global population. Dana is an experienced leader and coach with a history of working in both digital health and the corporate health and wellbeing industry.