Online Wellness Promotion Can Improve Health, Curb Costs

By Stephen Miller, CEBS Sep 26, 2012
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Smartphones and other mobile devices, along with destination websites, can help encourage employees to keep fit, better manage chronic conditions and make savvier health care decisions, thereby reducing the cost burden that unhealthy lifestyles and poor decision-making can pose for employers.

"The Internet's effectiveness around health care education has been proven," Jennifer Benz, president of Benz Communications, an employee benefits consultancy, told SHRM Online. Approaches vary, she explained, starting with baseline tools such as blogs and video series that explain to employees their health plans and how to navigate the system. At the next level are wellness goal-tracking software and tools that use social media to create online communities around managing chronic conditions such as diabetes. And then there are tools that are becoming an extension of a physician’s care, such as telemedicine and health-monitoring devices that help individuals to connect more easily with their providers.

"Social networks and health are inextricably linked,” said Raj Amin, CEO and co-founder of HealthiNation, a producer of health-promotion videos. "Our series True Champions: Diabetes tells the story of a man who was diagnosed at age 30 with Type 1 diabetes and took to the Internet to participate in a support group. The community support impacted him so much that he started his own online communities in English and Spanish, www.tudiabetes.org and www.estudiabetes.org. Invest in creating something that people will want to share, and more people will be impacted by the message."

The challenge is making a social strategy engaging, Amin added. "Providing valuable content on a frequent basis can create a value proposition for sharing, but you need access to enough content. For example, sending healthy eating ideas every Thursday or an exercise of the week on Mondays will give an expectation of a consistent source of information. If you can't make all the content yourself, you can partner with content companies."

Integrated Platforms

Wellness companies are starting to integrate wellness tools through integrated applications platforms, Benz explained. "In addition to employees being able to go on their site to fill out a health assessment, set wellness goals and track their progress, they can plug into programs such as Runkeeper orFitbit (for tracking health and fitness) or a Weight Watchers system, and monitor each from a central platform. In that way, there is more of a natural connection for the employer to understand."

However, cautioned Benz, "Some [social wellness companies] have well-developed platforms that have a tremendous amount of science behind them to get people to use them and to change their behavior. But there also are platforms that are just sort of thrown together, adding a point system and claiming to have 'gamified' the wellness program. But just throwing points on a few activities is not in itself going to be effective. There needs to be thought given to how to make something 'sticky' and more engaging."

Mobile Decision Support—Anywhere, Anytime

"Smartphone technology and mobile website capabilities can provide employees and their dependents with easy access to essential medical and pharmacy benefit information, and can do so wherever they find themselves, including at their doctor's office, lab or pharmacy," advised Robert Oscar, the founder of RxEOB, a provider of web-based software applications that support the effective use of pharmacy benefits. He noted that the kind of information that can be provided over mobile devices includes:

In-network provider directories.

Directions to physicians’ offices.

Drug prices at nearby pharmacies and expected out-of-pocket costs with generic and therapeutic alternatives.

Reminders and alerts for prescription drug compliance.

Options for in-home monitoring and in-home care.

While these resources may be available online from a desktop or laptop computer, "Consumers are increasingly relying on mobile applications to connect with the knowledge they need, when they need it, on the go," Oscar said.

Personalized health-related apps, along with tools for self-managing existing health conditions, can serve as decision-support tools for health care providers and pharmacy benefit managers, allowing them to quickly connect plan members to appropriate care sites, he added.

Additional advantages of mobile apps and platform service technologies extend to the integration of data from consumer-directed health plans (CDHPs) and health savings accounts, helping the growing numbers of employees with CDHPs to better manage their health care savings and to make cost-conscious decisions when selecting health care services.

Health Plan Info Goes Digital

U.S. employers are increasingly using electronic distribution for their health plan communications, according to the findings of the fourth annual Compliance Communications Survey from HighRoads, a provider of benefits management services.

The 2012 survey highlighted employees’ growing demand for mobile—and social media—access to their health plan information, finding that:

More than half of all employers said employees have asked them about receiving benefit information on their mobile devices.

About a third of the employers are investigating the possibility of distribution by smart phone.

“Clearly, [employers are] making aggressive moves to embrace online delivery in order to respond to both regulatory requirements and employee needs,” said Kim Buckey, a principal in HighRoads' communication compliance practice (see the SHRM Online article "More Health Plan Communications Go Digital.")

Stephen Miller, CEBS, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.​

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