Guest column

4 tips for Houstonians tuning into telemedicine from local health care exec

Telemedicine is a growing resources for Houstonians, but here's what you need to know about tapping into digital health care. Ian Hooton/Getty Images

When health issues crop up, people often have to decide where best to seek medical attention, with urgent care and the emergency room being potential destinations. But for more and more Houston residents, their smartphone is now the preferred way to see and talk to a doctor.

Telemedicine visits, also known as virtual care, typically last less than 20 minutes, often cost less than $50 and enable people to connect 24/7 with a health care provider via a smartphone, tablet or personal computer to help diagnose and treat certain medical conditions. While nearly 40 percent of Americans said they are interested in using telemedicine in the future to access care a separate J.D. Power survey found nationwide telehealth adoption is currently as low as 10 percent.

Closing this gap by expanding the use of virtual care may prove beneficial, as this technology can provide consumers improved convenience and lower costs. In fact, 68 percent of patients rated their telemedicine visit a "nine" or "10" on a 10-point satisfaction scale; 74 percent had their care concern resolved during the first visit; and net savings per virtual visit exceeded $120.

To help people take advantage of this emerging technology, here are four tips to consider:

Identify Available Resources
Among people who had not used telemedicine, the J.D. Power survey found that 37 percent said they did not know if they had access to this technology. To find telemedicine resources that may be available to you, check with your hospital or care provider group, health insurance plan or employer. In fact, nearly nine out of 10 employers are offering telemedicine to their employees, while 76 percent of U.S. hospitals already connect patients and care providers using video or other technology. For Medicare beneficiaries, some Medicare Advantage plans are offering coverage for telemedicine and resources to access virtual care, in some cases at no out-of-pocket cost.

For Houston residents, most people enrolled in UnitedHealthcare employer-sponsored plans have coverage for virtual physician visits, giving plan participants secure, online access to a physician via mobile phone, tablet or computer 24 hours a day. Several Houston-area hospitals and provider groups have also introduced virtual care resources, and changes in state regulations in 2017 helped spur additional national telemedicine companies to start serving the market.

Understand Appropriate Uses
While telemedicine may have the potential to help treat other health issues, the technology is most widely used to address minor and nonemergency medical conditions, including allergies, flu, pinkeye, and rashes. Telemedicine is also emerging as a helpful resource for behavioral health services, making it more convenient for people to access this type of care. If needed, doctors can prescribe medications and send prescriptions to local pharmacies for pickup. While people who experience a significant or serious medical issue should go to the emergency room (ER), it is important to recognize that about 25 percent of ER visits typically involve conditions that could appropriately be addressed with a virtual visit.

Keep Your Primary Care Physician
Telemedicine may be ideal for treating minor and nonemergency medical issues, but it is important for people to maintain a relationship with a primary care physician for wellness checkups, diagnostics, management of long-term conditions and some urgent and non-urgent treatments. As telemedicine programs evolve, people may have the option to use virtual visits to access primary care and maintain an on-going relationship with their preferred doctor.

Other Connected Devices
Consumers can consider other connected devices to help access care and potentially improve their health, ranging from smartwatches and activity trackers to continuous blood glucose monitors and connected asthma inhalers. These connected devices – and others like them – may provide important real-time information and offer people actionable feedback about their behavior patterns, while helping make it possible for care providers to counsel patients to more effectively follow recommended treatments.

Making telemedicine more widely available – and used – may be especially important for people with chronic conditions and the 20 percent of the U.S. population that lives in rural areas where access to health care, particularly specialty care, is often lacking. By considering these tips, people may make the most of telemedicine resources as part of their journey toward managing their health.

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Dave Milich is the CEO of UnitedHealthcare of Texas.

With stay-at-home mandates across the state, renewable energy helps reduce the strain of the grid. Photo courtesy of Freedom Solar

Largely due to the growing popularity and falling prices of solar energy in Texas, including incentives at the federal, state, and local level, the number of solar panel installations continues to trend upward throughout the state and especially in Houston.

For the third year in a row, Houston was named the top municipal user of green energy in the nation by the United States EPA, using more than 1 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) of solar and wind power. With 92 percent of the city of Houston's energy coming from green power, solar has solidified its place in the Houston energy market.

With solar panel system prices dropping 38 percent over the past five years, solar power is also growing in popularity among individual homeowners and business owners who want to take control of their energy costs and become more self-sufficient.

As the recent COVID-19 pandemic continues to shake industries across the nation, Freedom Solar is working tirelessly to keep our team safe, healthy, and employed. Solar installers provide critical electric generation infrastructure that helps us reduce the strain on the ERCOT grid, especially with higher electricity usage as people stay at home under local shelter in place orders and as we head into the warmer spring and summer months.

The health and safety of our customers and employees is our top priority, and as an essential business we are following strict operating protocols that are in line with the guidance provided by local, state, and federal authorities. Although these challenging times often result in a pause in investments, I argue that for customers who have been considering investing in solar, now is still the time to do so.

During these tumultuous times, for many home and business owners, investing in solar energy remains appealing as a smart and stable financial decision. A solar power system is an income-producing asset that will generate a stable return for 25 or more years. The ability to finance that investment without putting cash down upfront allows customers to get the financial benefits of solar now while keeping their money in the securities markets until they recover from the current economic downturn.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, overseas manufacturing has been disrupted for months, resulting in shortages in the global supply chain across many industries. These shortages could increase the price of solar panels, inverters and related equipment if US warehouses run low on inventory. For customers who have long been on the fence about investing in solar, I would urge them to reevaluate the numbers now in anticipation of potential price increases in the coming months in the wake of COVID-19.

Additional macro trends and current events continue to demonstrate the value of home solar power. According to a 2020 study by the financial institution Fundera, the number of regular telecommuting employees has grown by 115% since 2005. As more and more people are required to work remotely, especially during the current and indefinite "Stay in Place" orders, electricity usage and utilities have inevitably increased for many households.

Investing in solar for your home can help offset increased utility costs, especially while working remotely and in the rapidly approaching summer months. Current events may be accelerating the long-term trend, and even when the immediate crisis is over, the way many people work could be transformed.

As the energy industry continues to evolve, the reasons why Houston customers choose to invest in solar power evolve and grow. Going solar is no longer solely a testament to your sustainability practices but also a sound long-term investment. The federal solar tax credit — also known as the investment tax credit (ITC) — allows homeowners and businesses to deduct a significant percentage of the cost of installing solar from their federal income taxes.

The credit remains at 26 percent for the remainder of 2020 but will decrease to 22 percent in 2021 and then in 2022 will drop to 10 percent for businesses and will go away entirely for homeowners. With more than 90 percent of Houston's energy consumption deriving from green power, it is clear that solar is here to stay.

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Bret Biggart is the CEO of Texas-based Freedom Solar.