As Canada’s healthcare system strained and stretched to keep up with the shifting demands of the pandemic, many healthcare professionals were forced to restrict or shut down care for chronic conditions such as diabetes, cardio-pulmonary disease, auto-immune concerns and mental health.
This article explores some of the impacts of more than two years of limited diagnostic and treatment services for chronic conditions and how plan sponsors and administrators can help minimize costs and support improved outcomes ahead of a likely deluge of chronic disease claims.
It’s challenging for employees suffering from chronic diseases to manage their conditions, and it’s equally as hard for employers to understand how to support a suffering workforce while sustaining their organization. In a 2021 study, plan sponsors were asked to estimate what percentage of their workforce was living with a chronic condition. The average estimate was 34%, but the actual number is a shocking 60%!
In fact, employers may be seeing even higher numbers in coming months as the effects of delayed diagnosis and treatment begin to surface, with one expert noting ,“two years of backlogged surgeries in the system have extended long-term disability durations for people, which can in turn lead to more secondary diagnoses of depression and anxiety.”
Canadians are living with a range of chronic concerns, with diabetes and mental illness among the top-listed factors. Hypertension, high cholesterol, arthritis, asthma, and chronic pain are also driving drug, treatment and disability claims for employers.
These types of conditions account for 68% of benefits costs, but the impact to employers goes further when lost productivity is taken into account. For example, 47% of plan members who live with a chronic condition or chronic pain have either missed work or had trouble doing their jobs. This number is down from 2020, and may represent a positive effect of working from home, with 77% of plan members who live with a chronic condition or chronic pain saying working from home has made it less likely they miss work because of their illness.
The pandemic effect.
While remote working and reduced person-to-person contact during the COVID-19 crisis may have benefitted some plan members with chronic conditions, the impact overall is likely to be negative. The pandemic impacts experienced by people with chronic conditions, particularly those with mental health concerns, include:
- Restricted access to in-person treatment
- Closed or reduced services from allied practitioners, such as physiotherapists, dieticians, and psychotherapists
- Restricted or delayed testing and diagnostic services
- Cancelled surgeries
While coming months seem certain to bring an increase in disability claims and higher drug costs, plan sponsors can take steps to help minimize the impact of chronic illness by focusing on a culture of wellbeing and looking for tools that increase access to quality care.
Many employers have invested in wellness programs that include a focus on safety and broad benefits coverage. By looking at employee experiences through a broader lens, you can also support overall wellbeing by:
- Encouraging strong relationships at work
- Offering plenty of time off
- Providing (and encouraging) regular breaks
- Helping managers create reasonable workloads
- Giving flexible working options
- Leveraging employee assistance programs (EAPs) to educate plan members about wellbeing
Of course, access to quality care will also be important for dealing with the backlog of support for chronic conditions. Many employers are looking to virtual care as a way to give plan members access to experts on their own schedules. Solutions such as TELUS Health Virtual Care can offer on-demand access to qualified clinicians for diagnosing and treating a range of chronic concerns, including mental health. These professionals can also connect plan members to specialists who can support their ongoing wellbeing.
Mental health support for frontline workers is also a key part of addressing chronic post-traumatic stress and anxiety disorders. Digital tools that offer plan members programs they can work through at their own pace, with support from trained professionals, are showing good results.
Virtual pharmacies are a new tool that some employers are adding to their benefits programs. These services can help reduce drug costs and could lower plan members’ out-of-pocket expenses, while offering confidential consultations with licensed pharmacists to address medication questions and help improve adherence.
Most employers have some form of employee assistance program, and now is a great time to assess how your EAP can support chronic conditions going forward. Look for a program that does more than offer a list of resources; when plan members have the support of a personal care advocate, they can easily connect to the right treatment at the right time. For example, modern EAPs now offer dietician, psychotherapy and online support groups. When employees and their families are empowered to manage their chronic diseases on their own terms, outcomes and experiences can improve.
A great place to start with your planning for next year is with a detailed claims analysis that can help you understand the impact of chronic diseases on your plan members.
This data will help you assess your benefits coverage to help ensure it’s offering the right support for preventing chronic conditions, and for reducing disability claim volumes and durations.
Learn more about how TELUS Health can help employers, administrators and insurers build connected, accessible, efficient healthcare for Canada’s workforce.