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September 2018

Virtual Care: What to Know Before You See a Doctor on Your Smartphone or Computer

If you’re like most of your neighbors and friends, you probably feel crunched for time. Between our jobs, school events, housework, child care and errands, it’s no wonder that more than 60 percent of working Americans say they do not have enough time to do what they want.

In our precious downtime, nearly 80 percent of us rely on a smartphone to stay connected to news, services and each other. A recent survey by UnitedHealthcare shows that nearly 30 percent of Americans use the internet or mobile apps as our first source for information about their health conditions. In fact, you might have noticed a growing number of apps that enable you to receive medical care virtually. Virtual care, also known as remote care, telehealth, telemedicine or online visits, is medical care that’s delivered using technology rather than through an in-person consultation.

Research has found that 77 percent of consumers are open to the idea of replacing an in-person doctor visit with a virtual one. Yet fewer than 20 percent of people have tried virtual visits. To see if virtual care is a good choice for you, here are some tips before you get started:

  • Check your benefits: Some health plans offer virtual visits as a benefit, through physicians in their local care provider networks and/or through a national online service. Independent telehealth services and apps outside your health plan may also be available.
  • You’ve probably used the technology: Virtual visits are as easy as FaceTime or Skype. You’ll need a smartphone, tablet or computer with video and audio capabilities. Via an online connection that uses special security to protect your privacy, a doctor, physician assistant or other clinician sees and hears your concerns and symptoms, and prescribes treatment or any follow-up if needed. A virtual visit can take place anywhere you have Wi-Fi or data access, at your convenience, and in many cases 24/7.
  • Use virtual visits for the right things: Virtual visits are for non-emergency, minor medical conditions. They can be a huge time-saver for people who suspect they have a bladder or urinary tract infection, a respiratory or sinus infection, a rash, stomachache or diarrhea, or a migraine headache. Some care providers offer telehealth visits for ongoing help for chronic conditions or behavioral health issues.
  • Know when a virtual visit won’t do: In an emergency, call 911 or go to an emergency room. Virtual visits aren’t appropriate for a hands-on physical exam or treatment, or for certain tests or X-rays.
  • Understand the cost: Virtual visits through your health plan usually cost the same or less than an in-person doctor visit. Independent telehealth services usually charge $50 to $75 per visit. In any case, your cost for virtual visits is usually lower compared to urgent care and emergency room visits. Virtual visits covered by your health plan might count toward your annual deductible and out-of-pocket maximum, just like in-office visits.
  • Talk with your doc before and after: To understand whether virtual care is a good option for you and your family, discuss it with your doctor. If you opt for a telehealth visit, ask the virtual care provider to send a summary of your visit to your primary care physician so your medical record is complete and your doctor can follow up with you appropriately.

An Unexpected Way Seniors Can Steer Clear of the Hospital

Efrem Castillo, M.D., is the chief medical officer of UnitedHealthcare Medicare & Retirement

If you’re over 65 and notice that you’re trekking to doctor appointments more frequently than you used to or your medicine cabinet is growing increasingly crowded, you’re not alone.  

Most of us have accepted the reality that our bodies need more care and attention as we age, and so we dutifully do all the things we think we should to help maintain our health and independence for as long as possible: see our doctor regularly, take our medications as prescribed, try to eat a healthy diet and so on. The hope, of course, is that choosing a healthy lifestyle will let us do more of what we love and also avoid the fate so many of us dread: winding up in the hospital hampered with a serious health condition.

But according to new research, steering clear of the hospital could have a lot to do not just with your lifestyle choices but also your Medicare choices. Turns out, if you opted to sign up for a Medicare Advantage plan last fall during the Annual Enrollment Period, your odds of being hospitalized or needing care in the emergency room are significantly lower than if you chose Original Medicare.

Here’s how the study worked: Researchers with health care consulting firm Avalere Health set out to directly compare people enrolled in Medicare Advantage plans, which are offered by private health insurance companies, with those who enrolled in Original Medicare.

Because more than half of people enrolled in Medicare have four or more chronic conditions, they were especially interested in understanding how people with chronic conditions fare under each type of Medicare coverage. So they assembled a group of people with at least one of three of the most common chronic conditions in older adults: high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. About half the group were enrolled in Medicare Advantage plans. The other half chose Original Medicare.

The study found that people with chronic conditions enrolled in Medicare Advantage plans had 23 percent fewer inpatient hospitalizations and 33 percent fewer emergency room visits. Not only were they less likely to wind up in the hospital, but they were also more likely to get the preventive care services they needed. Compared to the people in Original Medicare, Medicare Advantage members had higher rates of preventive screenings and tests, including 5 percent higher rates of LDL cholesterol testing and 13 percent higher rates of breast cancer screenings.

The results were particularly promising for people with diabetes. As compared to the study participants with diabetes who chose Original Medicare, those enrolled in Medicare Advantage plans had a 52 percent lower rate of complications and a 73 percent lower rate of serious complications such as leg or foot amputation.

What makes the study findings even more impressive is that people who are at higher risk of being in poor health are more likely to choose a Medicare Advantage plan. The study showed that Medicare Advantage plans had higher proportions of minorities, people of low income and people with disabilities as compared to Original Medicare. People who chose Medicare Advantage also had a 57 percent higher rate of serious mental illness and a 16 percent higher rate of substance abuse disorders.

At this point you might be scratching your head, wondering how exactly Medicare Advantage has such an impact on health outcomes for people with chronic conditions. The Avalere Health researchers chalked the findings up, in part, to Medicare Advantage plans’ focus on preventive care, management of chronic conditions, and coordination of care for their plan members. Many Medicare Advantage plans offer extra benefits not available with Original Medicare that are designed to enhance people’s health and quality of life, such as disease management and wellness programs, gym memberships and in-home health care.

In short, Medicare Advantage plans tend to put more emphasis on ensuring their members are receiving appropriate care and support when they’re healthy and their conditions are under control, which in turn appears to lower the risk of needing more intensive care in the hospital down the line.

Intrigued? You’re in luck. Your opportunity to make a change to your Medicare coverage is right around the corner. Let this latest research serve as your motivation to check out all the options available in your area this fall during the Annual Enrollment Period, which begins on Oct. 15. The findings indicate that it would be well worth your time to consider whether a Medicare Advantage plan could be the right choice for your coverage, and your health, in 2019.

Efrem Castillo, M.D., is the chief medical officer of UnitedHealthcare Medicare & Retirement. Serving more than 12.3 million people enrolled in Medicare, UnitedHealthcare is the largest business dedicated to the health and well-being needs of seniors and other beneficiaries.

Stephanie Kellam, UnitedHealthcare Student Wellness Coordinator, Receives 2018 Texas Health Champion Award

UnitedHealthcare student wellness coordinator Stephanie Kellam has been recognized as a 2018 Texas Health Champion by the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living in Austin, Texas.

The Texas Health Champion Award is bestowed to individuals or organizations who have mobilized community efforts to prevent and reduce obesity and promote physical activity and healthy eating through research, practice, policy development, social marketing, behavioral interventions or innovative partnerships. The awards ceremony on September 13 was among Texas Obesity Awareness Week activities.

Kellam has written grants securing more than $250,000 in funding for the Central and South Texas school districts she supports. She has also published multiple research articles focused on childhood obesity in low-income, minority girls as it relates to physical activity and nutrition.

“After a rigorous review process, the award committee was impressed by Stephanie’s clear passion and dedication to the field of public health and obesity prevention over the past several years and her continued work to create and provide sustainable wellness programs and initiatives,” said Deanna M. Hoelscher, PhD, RD, LD, Director of the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living, in a letter to Kellam.

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