Telemedicine’s Fine, But What Happens When Injured Workers Don’t Have Access During a Pandemic?

As hospitals focus on fighting COVID-19, many other types of care and procedures have been suspended. How will that affect workers' comp?
By: | May 21, 2020

During a recent webinar, Kimberly George, senior vice president of corporate development, M&A and healthcare for Sedgwick, posed a question that is on many workers’ comp professional’s minds: “With clinics closed, hospitals not allowing elective surgeries, and such, how do our injured workers get the medical care they need?” 

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As the COVID-19 pandemic prevents injured employees from receiving non-essential or non-emergency treatment, delays in care could spike, leaving workers off the job for longer than they would have been pre-pandemic. 

For injured employees who are able to continue healing, the return-to-work process will look much different than it did back before COVID-19 necessitated remote work. 

In order to understand how the industry was approaching access to care and return-to-work during this time, George and Mark Walls, vice president, communications and strategic analysis at Safety National, talked to Bryon Bass, senior vice president of workforce absence for Sedgwick; Michele Hibbert-Iacobacci, senior vice president of regulatory compliance management at Mitchell International; and Jennifer Ryon, chief revenue officer of Prime Health Services Inc. 

Here are some highlights from the hour long webinar

Access to Care and Return-to-Work Challenges

It’s no secret that the pandemic has limited access to health care. With hospitals focused on beating COVID-19, elective surgeries have been cancelled indefinitely, physical therapy clinics closed and ordinary treatments put on hold.

“Access to health care, unless it’s an emergency, has been severely limited by the shelter in place orders,” Hibbert-Iacobacci said.  

Telemedicine has attempted to meet some of the gaps in patient care, Hibbert-Iacobacci said:  “What has erupted is a huge influx in what I would call virtual visits, like telehealth.” Physical therapy services, visits with physicians to manage pain and other services have all moved online.

The transition to telehealth services has not been without challenges, however. States, including Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio, are rapidly trying to pass legislation regulating and expanding telemedicine services. 

Patients are also questioning what to do if  their provider doesn’t offer telehealth care. “There’s been a lot of questions around, ‘what if the provider doesn’t offer telehealth?’” George said. 

“The most frequent question we’re being asked is do they have telemedicine capabilities?”Ryon added.

In order to help address this problem, the panelists recommended maintaining a list of which providers are open and what types of services they’re offering during the pandemic. That way, workers’ compensation patients can find a physician in their area who is open for either in-person or virtual visits. 

“From the very beginning of this pandemic, the number one challenge we have focused on is how to provide our clients with an as real-time as possible listing of what providers are available to see the patient [and] their operating hours,” Ryon said. 

Prepare for Reopening

Just as workers’ compensation professionals need to prepare for keeping claims moving during the pandemic, they will also need to think about what happens after it ends and employees return to work. 

Bass recommended companies consider reopening in three phases: preparation, return to the office and sustainability. 

During the preparation phase, businesses need to assess the readiness of the community and employees for reopening, make sure their facilities are large enough to accommodate social distancing and plan for other safety measures, such as temperature checks and providing workers with PPE. 

Once businesses reopen, they will need to evaluate how well these practices are working and whether they will be able to sustain them for 12-18 months or longer, depending on when a vaccine for COVID-19 is developed. 

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All of these phases should be guided by several principles, according to Bass.  “We need to have some guiding principles as we go about defining what we mean by preparation, return and sustainability,” he said. 

“Those guiding principles are safety of the employees, the visitors and the the general public; compliance from a public health organizations and government agencies [standpoint]; a collaboration … and probably the most important is agility given that there are so many unknowns around COVID-19.” 

This webinar was the forth in a series of “COVID-19 Briefings” hosted by George and Walls. You can watch more webinars from this series here&

Courtney DuChene is a staff writer at Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]