A majority (88 per cent) of benefits plan sponsors are very (34 per cent) or somewhat (54 per cent) satisfied with their organization’s virtual health-care offerings, up from nearly three-quarters (74 per cent) in 2021, according to the 2022 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey.

More than a quarter of plan sponsors (29 per cent) and plan members (28 per cent) said they have a health benefits plan that includes a virtual health-care service, an offering that’s somewhat more likely to occur in the private sector (31 per cent) than the public sector (23 per cent). Employers with fewer than 50 employees (30 per cent) were as likely as employers with 500 or more employees (32 per cent) to offer virtual care, whereas mid-sized employers with 50 to 499 employees were less likely (20 per cent).

Read: Employers planning for post-pandemic future focusing on employee well-being, virtual health care

As far back as 2020, when survey respondents were asked about essential coverages in their health-care plans, virtual health care was cited as the fourth most-desired benefit, behind prescription drugs, dental and vision care, said Randy McCaig, director of business development at Desjardins Insurance, during a session at the 2022 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey webinar.

He noted virtual care was one of the main reasons plan members are seeing more value in their benefits offerings. “We’ve seen employers add virtual health care as a way for their employees to gain access to medical care and mental-health support without having to step foot in a hospital or clinic, which was imperative through the [coronavirus] pandemic.”

More than two-thirds (69 per cent) of plan sponsors with a virtual health-care service indicated they added the offering to their standard benefits plan at no extra cost, while nearly a third (31 per cent) paid to add it to their plan. Large employers (96 per cent) were more likely than small employers (77 per cent) to be satisfied with their offerings.

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

Nine in 10 (92 per cent) plan members were more likely to describe the quality of their health benefits plan as excellent or good if virtual care was included in their plans, a percentage that decreases to 69 per cent if virtual care wasn’t included.

Two-fifths (41 per cent) of plan member respondents received care virtually by phone or computer from a health-care provider over the past 12 months, down slightly from 43 per cent a year ago. Utilization was higher among those with chronic conditions and/or pain (52 per cent), especially plan members with a mental-health condition (64 per cent) and asthma/lung disease (61 per cent). Regionally, plan members in B.C. were most likely (54 per cent) to use virtual care, while those in Alberta were least likely (24 per cent). Notably, close to half (48 per cent) of plan members aged 18 to 34 used virtual care, compared to 37 per cent of those aged 35 to 64.

The survey also found three-quarters (75 per cent) of plan member respondents who used virtual care did so mostly by phone, while 43 per cent did so mainly via video calls and just nine per cent used secure texting or messaging. More than half (56 per cent) of plan members cited their family physician as the most likely source of the virtual care, down from 76 per cent in 2021. Use of virtual care through a workplace health benefits plan increased from 13 per cent last year to 24 per cent in 2022, as did the use of a private service, paid for by plan members, increasing from five per cent to 17 per cent.

Read: One year later: How the pandemic sped up the shift to virtual mental-health care

For all sources of virtual care, most plan members were positive about the quality of service received. Privately paid services were ranked most highly, with 88 per cent describing the quality of services as excellent or good, followed by virtual care from a usual provider other than the family physician (86 per cent), from the usual family physician (83 per cent) and from the workplace benefits plan (78 per cent). 

Nearly half (46 per cent) of plan members indicated they’d likely order required medications online and have them delivered, up from 37 per cent in 2021. Members aged 18 to 34 (54 per cent) were more likely to do so than those aged 55 and older (31 per cent), as were members in Quebec (54 per cent).

More than a quarter (28 per cent) of plan members said their benefits plan offers a 24-hour virtual health-care service, while 31 per cent were unsure. Two-thirds (66 per cent) indicated they’d likely use a 24-hour virtual health-care service that’s part of their benefits plan, a percentage that increases to 81 per cent among those who’ve already used some form of virtual care. Similarly, plan member aged 18 to 34 and those with a mental-health condition (76 per cent each) indicated they’d likely use a 24-hour virtual health-care service, as well as 71 per cent of those with caregiving responsibilities.

“Advances in technology are unlocking our capabilities to deliver journeys digitally, both for
benefits and health services outside of benefits,” said Kim MacFarlane, vice-president of group benefits, product and digital experiences at Manulife Financial Corp. and an advisory board member, in the report. “We are on the cusp of proactively engaging plan members, leveraging tech and data to create dynamic experiences that continue to evolve and adapt until their personal health needs are fulfilled.”

Read: Paramedical benefits sector riding virtual health care wave