Jan 20, 2022
Convenient, Cost-Effective, and High-Quality Virtual Care Is Here To Stay

Throughout the pandemic, people have been making the switch to virtual medical and behavioral health care – and for good reason. Virtual care can be convenient, easy to schedule, and a safe way to avoid crowded waiting rooms.

Recent studies show that 76% of people are interested in using telehealth, compared with just 11% who used telehealth in 2019. Even after the pandemic ends, 83% of patients expect to use virtual care.

“This dynamic shift has prompted questions about virtual health care’s impact on spending, particularly for employers who may have been grappling with rising costs throughout the health care spectrum.”Shawna Dodds, vice president of product development for Cigna

To help answer those questions, Cigna released a new report titled, "Does Virtual Care Save Money? [PDF]," that looks at virtual care and what it can mean for employers and their employees seeking the best, most efficient, and most cost-effective health care.

Does Virtual Care Save Money?

A new whitepaper from Cigna shows that virtual care can help to drive down health care costs for customers. 

Read the whitepaper

Below, we outline some advantages of virtual care.

Virtual Care Is Convenient and Increasingly Popular With Patients

For those who do not already have regular physicians, getting an appointment can be a barrier to receiving care. Many physicians cannot accept new patients, and wait times for those who can are often lengthy. As a result, many patients resort to urgent care centers or emergency rooms, which costs more and increases the strain on facilities crowded because of the pandemic.

“We see this particularly in behavioral visits, where the average wait time to see a behavioral clinician is 48 days,” Dodds said. Virtual care offers an easier, faster way to see a provider. With MDLIVE, customers can see a clinician as soon as in two or three days.

Pre-pandemic, less than 2% [PDF] of outpatient behavioral health and medical claims were for virtual visits. The CDC reports that the number of virtual visits increased by 50% in March 2020, including an increase of 154% during the final week of that month, and continued to climb as widespread lockdowns continued. Today, virtual visits make up nearly 25% of all visits, according to research by Evernorth, Cigna’s health services business. Accenture estimates that in the future, one of every three visits will be virtual.

The trend is strong globally as well: According to the Cigna COVID-19 Global Impact Study: New Directions [PDF], availability and access to virtual health has become increasingly important. Of those surveyed in eight international markets, 54% of respondents said they were now likely to use virtual health as an option for consultation or diagnosis. Additionally, Fortune Business Insights predicts that across the world, the telehealth market will reach $636.38 billion by 2028.

Virtual Care Saves Money

Virtual care offers a number of direct and indirect savings. For example, Cigna data shows that the average cost of a non-urgent virtual care visit is $93 less than the average cost of an in-person visit. Seeing a specialist averages $120 less for a virtual visit than an in-person visit, while a virtual urgent-care visit averages $141 less than being seen in an urgent care clinic.

Virtual care also provides an access point for some who may otherwise not be getting the right care they need. Many patients – including more than 75% of Cigna customers who had an MDLIVE virtual wellness screening in 2020 – lack a primary care physician (PCP). According to MDLIVE analytics, two-thirds of these patients without a PCP learned they had a health condition as a result of their virtual screening. This enabled the patients to seek additional care before their conditions progressed, maximizing their health while avoiding costs down the road.

Virtual care also allows patients and plans to avoid unnecessary lab tests, saving time for the patients as well as avoiding unneeded expenses for them and their plans. A recent Cigna actuarial study quantified those savings, finding that patients who saw MDLIVE providers during urgent care visits were able to avoid unnecessary tests, saving an average of $118 for each episode of care.

Virtual Care Reduces Strain on Health Care Systems

New research that Cigna conducted with MDLIVE shows that virtual providers are effective at reducing unnecessary emergency room or urgent care visits, with 19% fewer visits compared with patients who saw in-person providers. That’s more important than ever today, as our hospitals and emergency rooms grapple to care for record numbers of patients due to the Omicron variant.

Our research also shows that MDLIVE visits were highly efficient, resulting in 16% less duplication of care in urgent care visits when compared with other virtual PCPs and specialists. This results in a significant reduction of ancillary health care spending.

Seamless, Integrated Health Care

Cigna recognizes the value of virtual care and is committed to bringing affordable solutions to those we serve. As of January 1, 2022, all Cigna customers who are enrolled in employer-sponsored plans have access to MDLIVE's full suite of services: primary care (preventive care, routine care, sick care, and follow-up care), urgent care, dermatology, and behavioral care. Cigna has also added MDLIVE to its group of collaborative care providers, giving them access to patients' health information for a more connected, coordinated experience, and launched a virtual-first plan option. This innovative offering includes $0 copays with MDLIVE primary care providers, comprehensive chronic-condition management and care navigation, and does not require referrals for in-person visits with in-network health care providers.

“We are squarely focused on bringing the highest value solutions to our customers, which includes optimizing how they connect to and receive quality care, in a convenient way that meets their lifestyles,” Dodds said. “For many of our customers, virtual care continues to be the best way to meet their needs in a cost-effective manner.”