Using Telemedicine for Disaster Relief Work Injuries

Lawrence Buirse

All employers aim to create a safe working environment. But what does an employer do when the work environment is heavily impacted by a natural disaster, such as a hurricane? The simple answer is the employer applies all possible precautionary measures to help employees safely perform their duties despite the obvious environmental and occupational hazards. But even then, there are environmental risks that are often unavoidable and can place these employees at higher risk of injury.

Potential occupational hazards following a natural disaster

Contamination. A natural disaster such as a tornado, severe flooding, or hurricane can cause employees to be exposed to bacteria, viruses, human waste, and other contaminants commonly found in flood water and sewage. Even wearing protective clothing, an employee may still be at risk of being exposed to bloodborne pathogens. For example, a first responder could be assisting injured civilians following a natural disaster and become exposed to human blood and other potentially infectious materials (OPIM), which could warrant the need for bloodborne pathogen (BBP) exposure testing.

Falls, Slips, and Trips. The risks associated with slippery, uneven surfaces and trenches are always factors for employees working in impacted areas following a natural disaster. Flood water and debris from damaged structures increase the chances of employees sustaining injuries caused by falls in trenches or slips and trips on damaged floors or other unstable surfaces.

While these occupational hazards may often lead to less severe conditions, other occupational hazards – such as downed power lines – can lead to emergent or life-threatening injuries. Emergency medical assistance is necessary to treat employees facing critical injuries while working in disaster areas; however, for relatively minor injuries that occur under these circumstances, telemedicine can be a resourceful option.

Why use telemedicine during a natural disaster

Medical care can be in a chaotic state following a natural disaster. Care access can be limited, as functional medical facilities may be overrun by patients being evacuated from temporarily closed facilities and patients suffering from disaster-related injuries.

Telemedicine has proven to be a reliable care solution when traditional, brick-and-mortar care options are limited or unavailable due to a public emergency. But telemedicine was not only utilized to prevent direct physical contact with symptomatic patients during the pandemic. Millions of employees across industries were required to continue working despite shelter-in-place orders, and these employees needed a care alternative for relatively minor occupational injuries and illnesses. For many employers, telemedicine was that alternative.

Concentra® assisted employers throughout the pandemic with their occupational injury care needs through its telemedicine service for workers’ compensation, Concentra Telemed®.

“Concentra was able to provide an alternative to in-person care [for workforces] during the pandemic,” said Ann Schnure, vice president of telemedicine operations at Concentra.

Adoption and utilization of Concentra Telemed increased dramatically in the first months of the pandemic, as Concentra experienced a 500-percent increase in telemedicine visits from February 2020 to May 2020. Concentra Telemed allowed employees with certain injuries to see a Concentra clinician on demand, eliminating concerns over clinic hours and availability or exposure risks.

“Because of Concentra’s nationwide footprint, even when brick-and-mortar centers were closed, Concentra Telemed was able to provide care,” said Schnure.

In addition to care access, telemedicine can offer a timelier care option to employees with relatively minor conditions during a public emergency. Hospital emergency departments typically use a triage system to categorize and treat patients. This, of course, means patients with relatively minor medical issues may have longer wait times before being treated by an emergency department staff. And during a public emergency when demand for emergency medical care is high, wait times for patients with noncritical conditions can become excessively long.

Concentra Telemed offers work injury care expertise and convenience

Concentra Telemed® offers convenient, 24/7 care access without compromising care quality or expertise. When work injuries occur, treatment delays often add to an injured employee’s anxiety, which can negatively impact employee recovery, injury claim duration, and overall health care costs. 

“Quality medical visits without delays can get an injured employee on the path to recovery with the right treatment plan,” explained Schnure. “Appropriate diagnosis and care can get injured employees back to work faster.”

The video health platform allows a Concentra clinician to engage with an injured employee, perform an examination, and determine a treatment plan while documenting the encounter in the electronic health record. And to ensure patient privacy and information security, Concentra Telemed visits are not recorded.

Logistically, the telemedicine solution can eliminate transportation needs because the service can be accessed anywhere using a smartphone or tablet with Wi-Fi connectivity. Concentra Telemed clinicians use the same care model utilized in Concentra medical centers, and many employees treated via Concentra Telemed can be treated throughout the life of a workers’ compensation claim using the telemedicine service. However, if an employee who is initially treated via telemedicine must be treated in person, Concentra Telemed is fully integrated with the electronic health record system utilized in Concentra medical centers. So, there is continuity of care.

“If a patient is not progressing toward recovery as expected, the telemedicine clinician refers the injured employee for in-person evaluation and treatment,” explained Lisa Figueroa, MD, Concentra vice president of medical operations and national medical director of telemedicine and health information technology. “Quality of care is always what is most important.”

From an injured employee’s perspective, Concentra clinicians are experienced in using video health technology. The telemedicine platform is designed to deliver a seamless, engaging user experience that helps to ease any concerns over care quality. It also provides 24/7 technical support. From an employer's perspective, Concentra Telemed requires no access fees or upcharges. And visit reports and return-to-work treatment details are easily accessible.

“Telemedicine is a delivery model of care, and the billing and reporting features work for the employer and payor exactly the same as in-person care,” explained Schnure. “The employer will be able to distinguish telemedicine visits [from in-person visits] by the reporting and billing.”

Make telemedicine part of your workforce injury care plan

Using telemedicine for work injury care during a public emergency has helped propel video health technology to the forefront of the discussion about health care in the workplace and beyond. As a takeaway from the role telemedicine played at the height of the pandemic, employers should no longer decide to adopt telemedicine out of desperation. Instead, the decision should be based on evidence of reliability. Telemedicine has proven to be a valuable resource when traditional health care options have been impeded due to unforeseen circumstances. It is also a highly effective care alternative when emergency medical assistance is unnecessary.

Whether it’s first responders, disaster restoration companies, or tree removal services, when catastrophic events occur, certain workforces are called into action. And these workforces often enter dangerous work environments that increase their risk of injury. The time to evaluate a workforce injury care plan is before disaster strikes and employees mobilize. And that plan should include a care alternative in case access to traditional care is unavailable. Telemedicine has the potential to combine video health technology with clinical best practices, delivering a patient experience that rivals in-person care while improving health outcomes. And Concentra is a national leader in harnessing the potential of telemedicine to treat injured employees across all industries.

To discuss how Concentra can assist your company in integrating telemedicine into its workers’ compensation program, click here for a free consultation.