With the rise of consumer-directed health plans, it’s no secret that employees are taking on a bigger share of their own healthcare costs. And with this increased financial responsibility comes a greater need for employers to educate their workers about how to shop for healthcare.

But many employees are having difficulty taking charge of their health and what can help them become more savvy consumers of healthcare, finds new research from Accolade, a healthcare concierge service that works with employers and health plans to serve as a single contact point for employees and health plan members.

“We know consumers have a difficult time accessing the healthcare system and that the services employers are providing are often underutilized,” says Robert Cavanaugh, president of field operations at Accolade. “Less than half of consumers are using the tools that are available to them through their health plan or employer. That was surprising to us.”

Nearly one-third (32%) of insured Americans say they are uncomfortable with their personal knowledge and skills navigating their medical benefits and the healthcare system, according to a Harris Poll survey of 1,536 American adults with health insurance, conducted for Accolade. This is higher than the percentage of those uncomfortable buying a home (25%) and twice as high as those indicating they were uncomfortable buying a car (15%) or technology/electronics (16%).

[Image: Bloomberg]
[Image: Bloomberg]

Workers also find dealing with certain healthcare-related activities to be a hassle. The top concerns, according to the poll, include:

  • Having to coordinate all the different aspects of benefits and healthcare (55%)
  • Selecting and understanding benefits (50%)
  • Coordinating care across different doctors, specialists and facilities (41%)
  • Using employer-sponsored benefits programs (30%).

And while 86% of those surveyed said that their employer or insurer offers health-related programs such as wellness apps, condition management programs, provider cost transparency tools and second opinion services, 43% said they haven’t used them within the past 12 months. Reasons they don’t use the programs more often include: because the programs are not relevant for them (29%), they don’t remember what’s available (15%), they find them confusing (14%) or they don’t like repeating the same information to different programs (13%).

“When an employee enters the healthcare system, they’re usually scared, confused."

“What we hear consistently is that they [employees] want a single place to go for all things healthcare,” says Cavanaugh. “When an employee enters the healthcare system, they’re usually scared, confused – they’re at the point of needing healthcare and not remembering that nine months ago their employer launched a particular program that may help them at that point.”

In fact, blanket communications of benefit programs – mass communication to the whole population with the same information, regardless of what their needs are – may be one of the factors that contributes to low engagement and utilization of benefits, says Kristin Torres Mowat, senior VP, plan development and data operations at Castlight Health, a San Francisco-based healthcare information company that offers a technology platform for employers and health plans that enables employees and health plan members to compare healthcare providers.

“If I get a message that just is completely irrelevant to anything that I need or care about or have on my mind, I delete it and I don’t think about the next message,” she says. “I’m just less likely to engage, as well, because I become desensitized. However, things that do come to me that are relevant to what’s on my mind, or my needs, I’m much more likely to engage.”

The same holds true for benefits professionals, she says, who are often challenged to make future healthcare benefits decisions based on the previous year’s claims data. “In January 2016, they were looking at data about 2015 in order to make benefits decisions for 2017,” she says. “If you were to say that’s how you make decisions on anything else in your business or your life, you would just say that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”

“If I get a message that just is completely irrelevant to anything that I need or care about or have on my mind, I delete it and I don’t think about the next message."

Last October, the company launched Castlight Action, a technology platform Torres Mowat describes as “an opportunity for the benefit leader to see real-time data on their population’s use and engagement within Castlight, as well as real-time activity data through claims so they can then make real-time decisions such as communicating different programs to different populations.”

An employer is paying a lot of claims for musculoskeletal issues and back surgeries, for example, and knows from past claims data that these problems are prevalent in its employee population. It also knows, based on Castlight search data, that employees are looking for information about back surgery options. With those pieces of data, along with the employer’s demographic data, “we can begin to predict those individuals that are at risk of being those high-cost users of those expensive back pain procedures,” says Torres Mowat. “Then we can begin to message them [employees] and educate them on physical therapy or weight management and exercise before waiting for the back surgery.”

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