Can big data help improve wellness programs?

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Despite growing adoption and continued investment in wellness, many workplace programs are falling short in terms of employee participation and engagement. And that may cause programs to shift focus over the next few years.

A new study from Dallas-based company HealthMine finds that 44% of respondents enrolled in a wellness program have a chronic condition, yet only 14% said that their programs help manage them. Additionally, only 35% of consumers enrolled in these programs engage in them at least once per week. The survey results features data from 750 insured consumers enrolled in wellness programs.

The discrepancy between the intent of a wellness program — an $8 billion annual investment by U.S. health sponsors, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation — and its lack of results has created a chasm in delivery of care.

“Closing gaps in care would ultimately save the employer and health plan money,” says Bryce Williams, president and CEO of HealthMine, Inc. “Me competing with Bob in accounting isn’t going to save money.”

The problem with the current wellness model, Williams says, is that it’s a checklist that focuses on lifestyle management — and “people are getting tired of those” — rather than disease prevention and management.

See also: Mercer, Accolade collaborate on new healthcare advocacy platform

What might help wellness is to exploit the power of big data, Williams says. Big data can be analyzed to determine current or budding health conditions through medical and pharmacy data claims, lab results and wearable technology. Employees with undetected or untreated comorbidity — for example, a person with diabetes and an undiagnosed anxiety disorder — can cost upward of 15 times more than if they were treated for the secondary illness, according to health research organization Hilltop Institute at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

“Health plans are realizing they could use their big data to put the shift on their members’ conditions,” Williams says.

Healthmine, for example, has a cloud-based platform that offers a real-time dashboard for employees to monitor their health score based on various data points. If the platform notices a user has an elevated A1C level but not type 2 diabetes, for example, it can offer a recommendation or identify an open gap in care, says Williams.

The program also is compatible with other alternative health plan options, such as telemedicine. Williams says the platform is able to compare rates of doctors in an employee’s zip code to the company’s telemedicine rate.

See also: Why employers should consider offering free telemedicine

Meanwhile, HR professionals have access to the platform to monitor engagement and determine how often employees are utilizing the system; employee information is private and protected by a firewall, so the company or the carrier is able to view the information, says Williams.

HR’s access to a clinical data platform can also help the company determine how they add incentives to motivate its employees.

See also: Companies move toward self-insurance as healthcare rates increase

Healthmine’s survey found that 68% of employees reported that they would engage with their wellness program more if there were better incentives.

Of the 750 employees enrolled in wellness programs, 52% reported that they do not receive incentives for fitness or weight loss programs, according to the survey. Forty-one percent of respondents said they haven’t earned all of their available incentives or completed all of the recommended health actions in the past year.

Williams recommends HR professionals should not only look at the big data but the small data.

Williams explains that small data are hypothetical questions that HR professionals should ask themselves when looking for a platform to do healthcare/wellness analysis. In other words, it’s a checklist of things to consider. They should analyze big data like individual stats but also small data as in employee responses/motivations.

“Small data is: What does it mean to my employee? What gets people fired up?” he says.

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