Paul Andrews, Global Benefits Director
Since Benefex first collaborated with Doctor Care Anywhere in 2017, the popularity of virtual GPs has accelerated. As we move further into the age of web-integration and video technology, virtual GPs have transitioned from an unheard-of futuristic benefit, to a revolutionary but familiar accompaniment to your employee benefit offering.
Leading providers in the US have been offering GP video consultations for several years, with Europe following more recently. Doctor-founded Doctor Care Anywhere offers a worldwide virtual GP and prescription service, and last year in the UK, Babylon amassed headlines by launching a pilot NHS scheme in London – ‘GP At Hand’. The scheme provides 24/7 online video consultation within just two hours, and any prescriptions can be sent to a pharmacy of choice. More recently, BUPA UK launched a similar service to their corporate clients, Instant GP, aiming to provide quicker and easier routes to treatment.
This movement towards virtual healthcare could potentially revolutionise access to universal healthcare.
How does this work?
Instead of waiting for a doctor’s appointment – usually during the work day – an employee with access to these benefits can go online to find and book a convenient appointment time. This can be any time – immediately or outside of work hours. This flexibility in appointment slots and the lack of travel and waiting times allows people to book around their schedules, fitting in healthcare where they would usually postpone it. During the appointment, you can video chat via a secure app with a doctor, and the treatment journey begins.
There are countless advantages of video consultation, not least the flexibility in scheduling appointments and finding a doctor who speaks the same language as the individual seeking advice. This results in not only a quicker treatment path, but also reassurance to the patient on the care they are receiving. In addition to this, an insurer can make sure that employees receive appropriate quality service and medical treatment in line with their guarantees.
Who is active in the international space?
For international insurers, where members may not be registered with a doctor or clinic, trying to navigate an unknown healthcare system in a different language can be incredibly difficult and, at times, distressing. Employees in these situations may put off getting treatment, ignore their symptoms, or struggle to get a correct diagnosis. An online consultation which can accommodate them anywhere in the world is an ideal solution.
Apart from one or two providers, the majority of virtual GP providers tend to be local or regional. A number of the larger international medical insurers such as Cigna and Allianz are building their own virtual GP systems (often via acquisitions). Advance Medical are one of the main providers, with Babylon also looking to grow their capabilities.
Multinational companies have begun to take notice of virtual GPs as a way to reduce out-of-office time, as well as a valuable benefit offering to their global workforce. Using digital healthcare as an employee benefit can be fully employer-funded, or an additional option on flex schemes.
Why is this happening now?
While the concept of digital, mobile healthcare has existed for years, the complication of prescribing medication locally is one of the biggest holdbacks for virtual GPs and digital healthcare. Speaking online to a qualified doctor is simple, however prescribing medication within the required country requires the doctor to be registered and qualified as necessary. As present, most digital healthcare companies use central resource or triage before linking into local health systems for prescriptions. Longer-term, it’s likely global medical networks will emerge.
Today, the limited competition in virtual GPs give medical facilities the upper hand in setting costs, to the detriment of both insurers and employers and employees. Over time, it’s likely that digital healthcare will become an effective cost-containment alternative to the high cost of GP consultations around the world. The result could lead to reductions in claim costs, and ultimately lower a client’s health insurance premium. Medical clinics and surgeries could be required to review their costs in order to compete for business in locations where there are now monopolies in private medical care.
Naturally, not everyone will be comfortable with a shift towards online consultations or the technology that supports this. However, in the international mobility space, the workforce is often predisposed towards new technologies due to the very nature of their working style. The employees of the future are digital natives, and will expect virtual healthcare as a standard option in the same way that employees today expect mobile-first technology.