By now it’s clear that the structural shift in healthcare is well underway. One of the best articles I’ve read lately to capture this was Dave Chase’s Forbes piece: “Health Plan Industry’s Worst Nightmare: Employers Realizing They Are Actually The Insurance Company,” where he argues that “any company over 100 employees or so is an insurance company in all but name.” Pretty bold, but I wouldn’t say he’s far off.
What’s the monetary value of a health plan? Chase regularly advises payers on creative thinking about ways to capitalize on healthcare’s trillion-dollar transformation from volume to value and how to avoid the “zero-sum game thinking.” He goes on to argue that health plans really don’t do anything that can’t be done better by an algorithm. (Cue the entrance of Amazon Health.)
And health is, of course, no longer just about your yearly checkups and making your pantry’s contents reflect the food pyramid. People want to know more about their food, make exercise enjoyable, and balance not only physical health, but also mental and emotional health. It’s not so much just diet and exercise — it’s about holistic wellness programs.
Employers and insurance providers are taking note. If the concept of health is growing in individuals’ eyes, so must insurance. Standard health benefits (i.e., just your doctor visits, be it regular care or trips in response to a problem) are increasingly being replaced by more comprehensive wellness programs looking to drive better outcomes as patients and as customers. And one of the biggest catalysts behind this is not new policy or social change — it’s tech.
A Quick Look at Workplace Wellness
Wellness programs — adding in programming to make employees’ health goals more robust and attainable — are a popular way for employers to try to mitigate the rising costs of healthcare. So popular, in fact, that workplace wellness is now a nearly $40 billion industry worldwide, according to the Global Wellness Institute. To keep employees engaged, companies are constantly innovating new ways to implement wellness in the workplace.
Take a look at Indiana-based Draper, Inc. for example, which was voted 2014’s healthiest workplace in the United States by Healthiest Employers, LLC. It boasts an entire wellness park on company property. The organization holds companywide challenges for losing weight and hosts programs, such as Weight Watchers and Zumba classes, for its employees.
Zappos, which has always been admired for its dedication to workplace wellness, takes it a step further by offering free gym memberships and reimbursing employees who participate in marathons. Company leaders even take employees for fun fitness adventures, like laser tag, and give employees extra downtime in the form of Recess Tuesdays.
Because the ultimate objective of a health insurer’s wellness program is more specific, the success of these programs relies heavily on health-related data from patients. Today, obtaining and utilizing this data is possible at a larger scale than ever before, thanks to continuously evolving healthcare and consumer technologies.
Using Technology to Deliver on Health Outcomes
It’s no wonder why wellness programs have become so widely adopted over the last few decades. For employers, getting their employees engaged helps improve productivity, reduce time off due to medical concerns, and ease the company’s overall health costs. In 2012, a Gallup study showed that employees who improved their well-being cost their companies up to 41 percent less in overall health-related expenditures.
For health insurers, health and wellness programs can significantly reduce premiums, particularly for chronically ill and at-risk patients. Such programs often help patients deal with illness more successfully and prevent unnecessary hospital visits, saving insurance companies hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.
And, of course, individuals appreciate the programs’ goals to boost their own health. With so much time spent at the office, it can be difficult to prioritize nutrition and exercise; wellness programs demonstrate to employees that their health matters in their employers’ eyes, giving them greater incentive and more permission to take care of themselves. It’s a win-win-win for all parties.
But that doesn’t mean wellness plans are perfect — there’s still plenty of room for growth, and that’s where today’s tech advancements come in.
Even the most innovative wellness program is only as good as the data that drives it. Today, that means utilizing innovative technologies, such as wearable devices and interactive software platforms, which can passively collect massive amounts of data about each consumer’s wellness.
The good thing about fitness wearables is that many people already own and use them regularly — especially younger generations, like Millennials. In fact, their sales are predicted to skyrocket over the next few years. For people who don’t, many employers do or would offer discounts or other incentives for using them. Wearables are also the most significant sources of what insurers crave most: reliable data about enrollees’ health and fitness habits so they can more accurately assess risks. Some providers are already creating initiatives to pair devices with plans.
As employers and health insurers continue to implement more engaging wellness programs, technology will continue to shape the way these programs affect consumers’ lives. Three of the most significant changes will be:
1. Data-Driven Incentives
The ability to cultivate and utilize enormous amounts of data is a huge benefit to employers and health insurers, but it will also help employees make the most of the programs available to them. As wearable devices keep track of their health and fitness efforts, they can also alert employees about program features and incentives that matter most to them.
For instance, if employees are only a couple hundred steps away from their 10,000-step goal, then a reminder can motivate them to push through the last leg and complete the program. By making it easier to participate, technology can help drive more employees to pay more attention to their wellness.
2. More Robust Engagement
Mental well-being is as important as physical health when it comes to an employee’s holistic wellness. That’s why some programs utilize data to help employees address non-work-related hardships that could be affecting their mental or emotional health. The data mined from wearable devices and participation in wellness programs offers unprecedented insight into what individuals need most for the sake of their mental and physical well-being.
This could mean assistance with financial hardships or with providing care to a loved one at home so employees have more time to focus on their mental and physical well-being. Not only will this help improve an employee’s holistic wellness, but it will also generate lifelong loyalty to the employer.
3. A More Enjoyable Experience
Employee health benefits are undeniably important, but they can be more of a yawn-worthy chore than an exciting addition to an employee’s work experience. Different aspects of today’s technology stand to improve upon that. If employees have already woven their wearables into their everyday life, for instance, taking advantage of their employer’s wellness program can become a seamless experience; they don’t have to go out of their way to make updates or review progress toward goals.
Employers and providers can take this a step further, aiming not just for convenience but for actual fun. Gamification is huge for apps, especially health apps — not to mention some employers are already experimenting with how gameplay can help measure employees’ performance at their desks. All that can easily intersect to gamify aspects of employers’ wellness programs, helping employees’ self-care become something they look forward to.
Offering ways for employees to stay healthy is good for employees, employers, and health insurers alike. In fact, a well-implemented and engaging wellness program can be one of the most attractive incentives for recruiting and retaining top talent. With more intuitive and holistic technologies being introduced to modernize results and benefits, wellness programs could very well become the norm across industries.