A third (34 per cent) of benefits plan members say they’ve received health-care services virtually by phone or computer over the past year, down from 41 per cent in 2022 and 43 per cent in 2021, according to the 2023 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey.

It found members recovering from a major injury (68 per cent) were much more likely to have used virtual care. As well, respondents who described their mental health as poor (43 per cent), who have caregiving responsibilities (45 per cent) and those with children younger than age 18 (44 per cent) were more likely to use virtual care.

Among plan members currently diagnosed with a chronic condition, the use of virtual care was highest among those with a mental-health condition (50 per cent), a lung condition such as asthma (49 per cent) and chronic pain (48 per cent).

Read: 88% of benefits plan sponsors satisfied with virtual health-care offerings: BCHS

A third (33 per cent) of plan members indicated their plan offered virtual services, while 34 per cent didn’t know if it was included. Among the 77 per cent of plan members who described the quality of their health benefits plan as excellent or good, a majority (86 per cent) noted virtual care was included in their plan.

Notably, two-thirds (68 per cent) said they’d likely use virtual health care if it was part of their benefits plan, a percentage that jumped to 97 per cent among heavy users of benefits for mental-health therapy. Plan members with a recent major injury (83 per cent), with children younger than age 18 (80 per cent) and those aged 18 to 34 (79 per cent) also said they’d be more likely to access health care virtually if it was included in their plan.

More than a quarter (29 per cent) of plan sponsors said they include a virtual health-care service in their health benefits plan, unchanged from in 2022 (29 per cent) but down from 2021 (41 per cent). Indeed, plan sponsors with a plan that includes virtual care (81 per cent) were more likely to describe their plan as excellent or good, as were those that believe they have a wellness culture (76 per cent).

Read: Walmart Canada increasing mental-health coverage, access to virtual health care

More than three-quarters (77 per cent) of plan members agreed (21 per cent strongly) their overall workplace culture or environment encourages health and wellness. However, plan members’ positivity was even higher when virtual care was part of their benefits plan (85 per cent). Plan sponsors that offer virtual health-care services were also more likely (93 per cent) to be positive about their workplace culture.

“While the general awareness of virtual care in benefits plans appears low, the perception of the value of virtual care —and ultimately the plan — continues to grow as more people use it,” said Andrea Belvedere, assistant vice-president of digital experience and product development at Sun Life Financial Inc. and a member of the survey’s advisory board, in the report. “This suggests we’re only beginning to see the true benefits for both employees and employers.”

Read: Half of Canadians increasing use of virtual health care amid pandemic: survey