Digital Health Coaching: Reaching Out to Older Workers

By Kevin Wildenhaus, Ph.D, HealthMedia Nov 15, 2010

In 2012, every day approximately 10,000 Baby Boomers will turn 65-years-of-old. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that the number of older employees in the workforce will increase by at least 80 percent from 2010 to 2016. Many older adults face health issues like multiple chronic conditions, stress and depression. These health issues can impact work performance and increase employer health care costs. In fact, the health care costs for a 65-year-old person are approximately four times greater than those for a 40-year-old person.

With a higher number of older adults returning or remaining in the workforce, employers are concerned about keeping older workers healthy and health care costs under control. A review of self-reported data from more than 218,000 individuals age 60 and older who completed the HealthMedia SUCCEED Health Risk Assessment (HRA) found:

  • 72 percent of participants age 60-69 report currently working outside the home.
  • 25 percent of participants age 70 and older report currently working outside the home.
  • 17 percent of participants age 60 and older reported experiencing symptoms of depression.
  • $4,320 per participant per year is estimated to be lost due to productivity impairment of workers over the age of 60 (the estimate includes absenteeism and presenteeism).

Given the changes in workforce characteristics and the potential impact on health care costs, employers are addressing health and productivity management as an integral part of business strategy. Many organizations are adopting a culture of health to motivate their employees to actively manage their own wellbeing. Through comprehensive health and wellness strategies, these employers are adding programs and services focused on educating and empowering employees to take charge of their own health, manage chronic conditions, and adopt healthier behaviors.

Technology-based Interventions

With the fastest-growing group of Internet users being older adults, technology-based health interventions, such as digital health coaching, can be a good fit for the Baby Boomer generation.

Digital health coaching combines advanced technology with strong behavioral science to aid individuals in better managing their own health. The programs are designed to emulate a live health coaching session. They are highly personalized and tailored to the unique needs of participants, scalable to a population of any size, available 24/7, confidential, and cost-effective to deliver.

These coaching programs begin with an interactive consultation, combining questions with reflective feedback, addressing the participant’s unique personal situation, motivation, self-confidence and perceived barriers to success. The programs create distinct personal action plans tailored to each participant based on her or his responses. Digital health coaching plans leverage multi-disciplinary clinical expertise and evidence-based behavioral change models—designed to target and motivate personal engagement and behavior change—to create personalized tools and resources to help participants achieve specific goals.

For instance, Succeed HRA participants over the age of 60 reported that their top three lifestyle priorities were nutrition, weight management and physical activity, with stress management also being a high priority. Through personalized action plans, interactive guidance and support tools, participants can change their behaviors and learn the skills they need to help them eat better, lose weight or become more active.

With digital health coaching programs, an employer is able to create custom communications targeting individual participants with messages matched to their specific health needs and risks. The advanced technology behind digital health coaching enables the programs to analyze risk assessment data, claims data, personal health records and electronic medical records in order to identify participants who are most ready for change.

The participants then receive unique communications where the messaging is based on their self-reported stage of change, motivation self-confidence, perceived barriers and demographics. These messages can be delivered through a variety of mediums, including e-mail, direct mail or interactive voice response (IVR), directing participants to engage in behavior change programs that lead to healthier lifestyles.

Improved Outcomes

Extensive analysis has been conducted on digital health coaching results. For example, self-reported results for participants age 60 and older who participated in digital health coaching programs focused on nutrition, weight management, physical activity and stress management showed:

  • 66 percent of participants reported eating healthier after 180 days.
  • 59 percent of participants reported weight loss after 90 days.
  • 61 percent of participants reported experiencing improved stress levels after 180 days.
  • 93 percent of participants reported increasing the amount of physical activity after 30 days.

As the percentages of Baby Boomers 65 and over increase and health care costs continue to rise, employers will need to increase their focus on comprehensive wellness and prevention plans that help employees better manage their own health. Digital health coaching is a holistic solution that offers effective, confidential and convenient coaching that is scalable to entire populations of employees of all ages. This digital age approach to coaching can play a significant and increasing role in corporate wellness and prevention strategies as employers adapt to the increase in older employees with significant health challenges.

Kevin Wildenhaus, Ph.D., is Director of Behavioral Science & Data Analytics at HealthMedia, a Johnson & Johnson company focused on wellness and prevention. Dr. Wildenhaus is a clinical psychologist specializing in health behavior change and health intervention programs.

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