The coronavirus pandemic has prompted an uptick in delivery services as more people are heeding the warning to stay inside to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Deliveries, however, are not just for meals, groceries and online shopping.
Telemedicine — the delivery of health-related services and information via electronic technology including phones, tablets and computers — has been around for years, but has seen a tremendous increase in users in recent months. During the month of March alone, approximately 1,300 Finger Lakes Area School Health Plan members registered for services from telemedicine provider MDLIVE, according to Excellus BlueCross BlueShield account manager Connie Margiotta.
“Telemedicine offers easy access from the comfort of your home, desk or while traveling,” Margiotta says. “Through our partnership with MDLIVE, [FLASHP] members have access to U.S. board-certified physicians and other medical professionals 24/7, 365 days a year.”
This is the third year telemedicine has been available to FLASHP members through Excellus BCBS. MDLIVE telemedicine services require a $10 copay for members on any copay plan and $40 for members on a high-deductible health plan, prior to the deductible being met.
In the spring of 2019, Margiotta, fellow Excellus BCBS account manager Janette Westman, FLASHP representatives and Smola Consulting wellness consultant Rick Amundson convened to discuss ways to increase awareness and engagement in telemedicine among FLASHP members. They met again in the fall of 2019 and provided FLASHP schools with tools, collateral and instruction for their employees.
“We took several different approaches to inform FLASHP members about MDLIVE services,” Westman says. “Employees were sent informational email blasts, telemedicine postcards were mailed to their homes and information was included at onsite employee presentations.”
The “telemedicine marathon,” as it became known, appears to have worked. Visits are on the rise, Westman says, noting that in 2019 there were a total of 324 MDLIVE visits, and the number through the first six months of 2020 was already at 319.
Telemedicine is ideal for a wide variety of non-emergeny conditions including allergies, cold and flu, ear infections, conjunctivitis, aches and pains, and sinus infections. In addition, MDLIVE’s behavioral health specialists are available to help patients with anxiety, depression, childhood/adolescence disorders, and attention deficit and bipolar disorders. Those experiencing true medical emergencies should call 911 immediately for assistance.
“The recommended first course of action [for a non-emergency] is to contact your own doctor, as he or she is most familiar with your health history,” Margiotta says. “If your provider is not available, MDLIVE is a great alternative.”
While the thought of meeting virtually with a doctor rather than in person may be a bit unorthodox and unconventional for some, telemedicine will likely remain a popular option even after the pandemic.
“The pandemic has cast a bright light on telemedicine and the importance of being able to access medical and behavioral health care whenever and wherever needed,” Westman says. “The need to practice physical distancing during the pandemic has helped many patients realize that with telemedicine they can see a health care provider from the privacy and safety of their home, or where they feel comfortable.
“We may look back on this crisis as the trigger event that forever changed the way health care services are delivered.”
Not all marathons leave participants with blisters, sore muscles, and aches and pains.
That is what members of the Finger Lakes Area School Health Plan consortium learned this past March when they were invited to participate in a Telemedicine Marathon organized by FLASHP wellness coordinators. This “marathon” was held from March 2-9 and provided participants with a wealth of knowledge on telemedicine, which has seen a growing number of users, especially among FLASHP members, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
FLASHP wellness coordinator Chelsea Jay says three years ago, when telemedicine was first offered to the consortium, only 27 people registered.
“Four of those  people were my wellness co-coordinator, Heather Bonetti, and our family members,” Jay jokes.
Last September, Jay and Bonetti attended a FLASHP wellness committee meeting, and the idea of the weeklong marathon was discussed. Approximately six months later, the marathon was up and running, and the response was much better this time around.
“We stressed that it was such a blessing to avoid illness and long lines [at the doctor’s office] with this program, especially with COVID-19 on the horizon,” Bonetti says of the message she and Jay were trying to share with FLASHP members.
The marathon was heavily promoted via emails and postcards in staff mailboxes, Jay says. A strong marketing campaign along with the added incentive of a $20 gift card to Wegmans Food Markets resulted in 137 people registering for a telemedicine appointment, Jay adds.
“We sent out lots of emails,” Jay admits. “We sometimes feel bad about the number of emails we send out, but health is so important and we feel passionately about it. With the spread of COVID-19 — even though at the time we knew very little about it — we knew it could potentially change the way we do things and [providing information on telemedicine] is one way we felt we could help because the health of our staff and communities are important.”
“This last registration drive was awesome,” Bonetti adds. “Staff really got into it.”
Less than a week after the telemedicine marathon, FLASHP teachers learned they would be teaching from home as concern over the coronavirus intensified, prompting schools to temporarily close their doors. With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urging people to stay home to reduce the risk of contracting or spreading coronavirus, Jay mentions how beneficial it is to receive health care for oneself and their family from the comfort of your home.
“As potential patients — and moms — Heather and I see the benefits of shorter wait times and quality care 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Jay says. “Anyone with children knows that they don’t get sick on the weekday between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Being able to access care for them or for yourself when you don’t have to get out of your jammies or bundle them up to take them to a place to wait in a waiting room with whatever other germs are lurking around is a definite bonus.”
Bonetti says the response she has received from FLASHP members who have tried telemedicine has all been positive.
“I have heard from a few people who have used it, and they do seem to be happy with the ease of the program,” she says. “It is so convenient and it puts your mind at ease knowing that you can get help without having to expose yourself or your family to other illnesses.”
With multiple successful telemedicine “visits” under her belt, it is no surprise Jay recommends this method of distributing health-related information.
“I would say go for it,” she says when asked what she would tell someone on the fence about trying telemedicine. “You have nothing to lose. Signing up is free. You only have to pay your co-pay or rate if you use it. I haven’t been disappointed yet.”