When Desjardins Insurance wanted to determine the value of virtual health care in employer-sponsored benefits plans, it used its own employees as guinea pigs. The results were a resounding success.

In the 2018 pilot project, Desjardins’ more than 48,000 employees received access to Telus Health’s Medisys on-Demand virtual application. Among employees who used the app, three-quarters (76 per cent) were able to avoid an unnecessary doctor’s appointment and 63 per cent said it helped them avoid missing work. Almost all (93 per cent) said they’d use the app again and 84 per cent rated it a nine out of ten points in terms of usefulness.

According to Desjardins, its employees’ most common reasons for consultation through the app were respiratory system issues, skin and subcutaneous tissue issues, genitourinary system issues, infectious and parasitic diseases and mental and behavioural disorders.

“Our pilot project really helped us see first-hand how beneficial a virtual health-care service can be to a group benefits plan,” said Nadeem Rajabali, the insurer’s regional vice-president of group insurance for Western Canada, during Benefits Canada’s 2021 Tech Insights conference in January. “It also showed us that there are some other things that we need to do in the background to make this easy and simple for plan sponsors.”

Desjardins took those learnings into account when it began offering Medisys on-Demand to its clients. For instance, when plan members access the app, it immediately connects them with a registered nurse via video chat or text. In this way, he says they still get that human touch, instead of just interacting with a chatbot.

Through the tool, plan members can access a variety of practitioners, including psychiatrists and dermatologists. They can also set up text or push notifications on their phone, including for follow-up appointments, to respond when it’s convenient for them. “Getting that first session with a physician, of course that’s important. But you want to make sure that your platform has the ability to help with follow-ups or any kind of check-ins to make sure the patient is getting their issues looked at and making sure they’re getting that great medical outcome.”

As well, Desjardins handles the logistics of onboarding employees, particularly new hires, ensuring they can access the app and connecting it to the group benefits bill.

Rajabali noted Canadians’ attitudes toward virtual care have shifted significantly since the coronavirus pandemic began. According to a November 2020 survey by Dialogue and Environics Research, 70 per cent of Canadians now believe virtual care is the future of health care, in comparison to just over 15 per cent prior to the pandemic. The same survey found 82 per cent of Canadians believe it should be offered in a workplace benefits plan.

“There was definitely an interest in virtual health-care prior to March of last year, but really it’s ramped up in the months and quarters following that,” he said.“[There are more] requests for quotes, to get more details on virtual health-care offerings, and to really get a sense of what’s out in the market, and [Medisys on-Demand] could help plan members and employers in terms of providing access to a tool that can be trusted and help with any experience people are going through.”