Father and young daughter attend a telemedicine appointmentFather and young daughter attend a telemedicine appointment

Where to get medical care: A pandemic guide for employers

January 26, 2021
Heidi Pearson

Helping your employees understand all the medical care options available to them can help everyone stay healthy (and save money) in 2021.

Over the past year, many of us have avoided seeing the doctor. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that four in 10 U.S. adults avoided medical care in 2020 because of concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Your employees may be among these millions of Americans who’ve skipped annual wellness exams, put off routine preventive care screenings, or ignored symptoms that would prompt them to seek medical attention under typical circumstances.

Of course, 2020 was anything but typical, and your employees may still be hesitant to seek healthcare in 2021. That would be a mistake—especially given that medical facilities are placing a huge emphasis on patient safety, and many employers have invested in digital care options to facilitate access to healthcare from anywhere. Simply put, Americans need to re-prioritize their health. As the American Medical Association notes, “we cannot let routine and essential medical care become another casualty of this pandemic.”

The good news is that, even as the pandemic drags on, there are a variety of ways employees can get the care they need. Here’s a list of commonly available employer-sponsored healthcare options and the types of health needs they’re best equipped to treat. (And if you have a healthcare guidance solution in place, it’s even easier to guide employees to the right care settings based on their health needs.)

Onsite / nearsite clinics ($)

If your company has an onsite or nearsite clinic, it’s possible that employees—especially those working remotely—may not know what services remain available to them. Many onsite clinics are offering COVID-19 tests, vaccinations, telemedicine visits, or in-person wellness appointments. According to a report by the nonprofit Business Group on Health, “onsite clinics have proven to be flexible enough to adapt to the current landscape and provide COVID-19 testing and virtual counseling.” Be sure to remind your staff what medical services are available, especially if those services are low-cost or free. Even if your team is working remotely, this is still a nice option for employees who live close by.

Telemedicine & digital apps ($)

Spurred by COVID-19 concerns, the use of telemedicine increased dramatically in 2020. Many physicians and clinics now offer virtual visits to patients, in addition to the dedicated telemedicine solutions available through insurance carriers or employers. Telemedicine is often used for COVID-19 screenings, wellness visits, advice about common health needs like the flu or pink eye, prescription refills, and mental health counseling—all without requiring patients to leave their homes. If you have a dedicated telemedicine solution in place, make sure your employees know how to access it; otherwise, you can encourage people to check with their primary care doctor to see if they have video or telephone appointments available.

Additionally, make sure employees know where to access any apps or digital health solutions you offer that help them get care from home. Mental health, chronic condition management, healthcare advocacy, joint health, and other online services can provide ongoing support to employees even if they aren’t comfortable getting care in person.

Retail clinics ($)

Retail clinics—located within nationwide retail stores and pharmacies—are a convenient option for receiving vaccinations and treating minor, uncomplicated illnesses and conditions (think fevers, earaches, and rashes). These care settings are often very accessible to employees and don’t carry the same level of COVID-19 exposure risk that a hospital or large medical group might.

Often staffed by certified nurse practitioners, retail clinics typically charge a set price for services, so encourage your employees to do their research before visiting. Most retail clinics post a comprehensive price list on their website.

Direct primary care ($)

Direct primary care can be a great, low- to no-cost option for employees if your benefits program offers it. Routine visits, screenings, and lab work are all covered by the monthly subscription fee, so patients don’t have to pay out-of-pocket for those services. And as more people start to catch up on deferred care later in the year, these clinics may have more availability for appointments than a typical primary care practice or medical group serving large volumes of patients.

Imaging centers ($$)

If employees need to get an MRI, X-ray, CT scan, or other type of imaging service performed, freestanding imaging centers are a great option. They usually cost less than hospitals, sometimes to the tune of thousands of dollars. Additionally, since these medical facilities are (as the name suggests) freestanding, they may feel safer to visit in person than an ER or hospital that’s also treating COVID-19 patients.

Primary care physicians (PCPs) ($$)

For employees who have an established primary care physician (PCP), they’re a great go-to resource for common medical issues such as back pain, flus, ear infections, and UTIs. They can also help employees manage chronic conditions such as heart disease, depression, and diabetes. While many primary care offices have reopened for in-person visits, a lot of doctors are now offering phone or video consultations too.

Having a PCP can provide a big boost to an employee’s ongoing wellness journey. According to a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, adults with a primary care doctor are more likely to have routine preventive visits, stay on track with cancer screenings, and receive other high-value medical care.

Specialists ($$$)

If employees have a complex health need or chronic condition, seeing a specialist may be the best course of action. While specialists are generally more expensive than seeing a general practitioner or visiting a retail clinic, they can provide more sophisticated treatments and ongoing monitoring for specific kinds of health needs. If employees are concerned about seeing a specialist in person, encourage them to check with the doctor’s office to see if they have telemedicine options for basic screenings and checkups.

Urgent care ($$$)

While most primary care, retail clinics, and specialists have reopened their offices for in-person visits, they may have reduced capacity or hours due to the pandemic, making it difficult to get treated quickly or seen during nights and weekends. Urgent care is a flexible option for non-life-threatening illnesses or injuries that require care within 24 hours. Examples include cuts and burns, fever or flu, minor broken bones, strep throat, or eye irritations.

Because urgent care visits usually cost more than visits to PCPs, it’s wise to consider calling a primary care doctor or using a telemedicine service to evaluate symptoms before heading to the nearest urgent care center.

Hospital/emergency care ($$$$)

Some health issues require immediate attention. Any problems that appear to be life-threatening—including poisoning, convulsions, several abdominal pain, respiratory issues, heart attack symptoms, stroke symptoms, and suicidal thoughts—merit a trip to the nearest emergency room. While COVID-19 exposure is a possibility, the vast majority of hospitals have implemented rigorous safety precautions to protect patients. Employees should feel confident about going to the emergency room when they have an actual medical emergency.

Whether employees want to stay on top of their preventive care or get treated for more urgent health needs, employees have many ways to get medical care in 2021. Educating your team on their options can help your employees feel empowered and safe while getting the treatment and support they need—even if the pandemic is still impacting regular routines for the foreseeable future.

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