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Telehealth: A growing trend in Asia Pacific

Health and Benefits|Wellbeing
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By Jenny Lim and Royston Tan | March 9, 2021

The pandemic has catapulted telehealth into the spotlight and it’s here to stay. How are Asia Pacific employers adapting to the change?

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What is telehealth?

We define telehealth as video or phone consultations with a licensed doctor, including:

  • Navigating emergency care or pathways for medical care or behavioural health services
  • Diagnosing non-emergency health issues from acute to complex chronic conditions
  • Providing non-emergency paediatric care
  • Prescribing medications for common health concerns
  • Treating such medical conditions as fever, rash, pain and more

The unprecedented scale of government-imposed lockdowns in 2020, which severely restricted social movement and access to health care, caused a jump in video or phone medical consultations — also known as telehealth. In Asia Pacific, pre-COVID-19, 56% of insurers indicated that none of their insured members used telehealth to access primary physician/general practitioner (GP) services, a figure that has dropped to 4% today, according to the 2021 Global Medical Trends survey.

As social distancing rules continue to stay in place, and employers expect their flexible work policies to extend over the foreseeable future1, we expect that employers will continue to make online medical care services easily accessible for their employees through telehealth.

The rise of telehealth

Globally, telehealth has been adopted by 50% of insurers across all plans (Figure 1). In Asia Pacific, however, there’s a higher percentage of insurers who offer it across select plans only, and almost three in 10 say that they do not offer it at all and have no plans to.

Even with the wider adoption, some countries have placed restrictions on services that are legally allowed to be delivered by telehealth, with pharmacy prescription being most common. Others include limiting specialist consultations to certain specialty areas and medical conditions that can be treated via telehealth. Hence, employers need to stay current on telehealth legislation changes as they incorporate telehealth into their local benefits programs, understand the regulatory restrictions and limitations pertaining to accessibility and quality of care.

Globally, telehealth has been adopted by 50% of insurers across all plans.

In Asia Pacific, however, there’s a higher percentage of insurers who offer it across select plans only.

Figure 1. Prevalence of insurers that offer telehealth across all plans

Services covered under telehealth

Insurers that offer telehealth are most likely to cover primary physician/general practitioner (GP) services, a finding consistent across all regions. Ninety percent of insurers globally and 76% in Asia Pacific offer these services through telehealth.

The other main areas of care under telehealth that this survey examines are:

  • Prescribing drugs/pharmacy
  • Specialist consultant services
  • Mental health

When it comes to prescribing drugs or pharmacy services, the prevalence is similar to those for primary physician services, with an average of 90% of insurers indicating that these services are legally available under telehealth (where they offer the telehealth option), a finding largely consistent across all regions.

For specialist consultation and mental health services, there are some differences in Asia Pacific where insurers report lower availability than other regions to offer these services under telehealth. Only two-thirds of insurers in Asia Pacific indicate that specialist consultation or mental health services can be legally offered in that region. In particular, for mental health services, this is not surprising as most Asia Pacific insurers do not provide coverage for mental health. In other regions, 85% to 90% of insurers indicate that these services are available under telehealth.

Restrictions

The legislative situation when it comes to telehealth is very much evolving. Even with the wider adoption, some countries have restrictions in place regarding what can and cannot legally be delivered by telehealth. Restrictions can be found in the areas of primary/GP services, prescription drugs, specialist consultations and mental health services. Pharmacy prescribing is the most commonly restricted service, which from a “last mile fulfilment” perspective is a crucial success factor to the adoption of telehealth. Some countries won’t permit any prescribing virtually, while others limit the prescribing of certain drugs such as narcotics. Countries with pharmacy restrictions include India, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines and Taiwan.

Pharmacy prescribing is the most commonly restricted service, which is a crucial success factor to the adoption of telehealth.

Regarding restrictions related to primary/GP services, some countries may limit these services to follow-up visits as is the case in Japan. Certain countries limit specialist consultations to certain specialty areas. Finally, when it comes to mental health services, when covered, there may be restrictions on the conditions that can be treated via telehealth.

Telehealth as a cost management tool

Telehealth is gradually being seen as an effective cost management tool. The efficiency associated with telehealth in terms of elimination of travelling and waiting time when compared to visits to physical clinics and the lower cost of delivery for medical providers are tangible savings which will benefit employers.

Telehealth is gradually being seen as an effective cost management tool.

With telehealth’s ease of use, employees are also less likely to delay care which may lead to reduced complications and/or visits to emergency rooms which otherwise could become quite costly.

Implications for employees

For employees, there are also tangible benefits as some insurers waive the co-payment/co-insurance charge or absorb the fee for delivery of medications to encourage telehealth usage. There is no upfront cash outlay nor a need to file for a claim reimbursement, bringing added convenience.

Employees may also receive a higher quality of care and many will be more inclined to undergo a follow-up medical appointment virtually due to ease of convenience, which may not always be the case when it comes to a subsequent medical appointment in a physical medical centre.

Implications for employers

It’s important to stay current with legislative and regulatory changes that will impact the way telehealth is regulated and the scope of services that can be offered. Employers should also keep abreast of the latest innovations by market players as the adoption of telehealth accelerates and gains widespread adoption. At the same time, employers should be looking for ways to ensure they incorporate telehealth delivery into existing medical programs and not offering it as a duplicative service.

Footnote

1 Flexible Work and Rewards Survey: 2021 Design and Budget Priorities

Authors

Regional Director, Client & Carrier Management, Health & Benefits, Asia and Australasia

Head of Strategic Development & North Asia (ex. China), Health & Benefits, Asia and Australasia

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