Statistics show that 90% of Americans have a cellphone and more than half have a smartphone, presenting an enormous opportunity for benefits professionals to communicate and engage employees with their benefits.

"It's obviously the preferred method for employees to communicate, and if [they get benefits information through an app], they appreciate that," explained Jamie Spriggs, president of ConnectYourCare, during a panel discussion at EBN's Benefits Forum & Expo last fall. Spriggs said that apps by themselves can spur employee engagement and health improvement results. "In general, employees don't need incentives to use apps," Spriggs said.

That may be a vast understatement.

According to eMarketer.com, mobile users worldwide will spend 101 billion minutes a month using apps alone, and they will spend an additional 23 billion minutes a month on the mobile Web. In addition, Americans who own mobile phones rarely leave home without them - the average U.S. consumer is never more than three feet away from their phone. That level of engagement represents a treasure trove for benefits technology vendors - and by extension, employers - to tap in their efforts to raise employee awareness about health and wellness.

"We have this awesome technology, but we're not leveraging it to its greatest extent," said panelist Kyle Rolfing, founder and president of RedBrick Health, encouraging benefits professionals and advisers to take advantage of this new frontier in benefits communication. Meanwhile, EBN compiled case studies of several leading-edge employers in the wellness apps space to spur inspiration and innovation among HR/benefits practitioners and their vendor partners to take health improvement efforts to the next level.

 

From 'boring' to breakthrough

Before RedBrick Health modernized its wellness program - which featured traditional online and phone-based touchpoints - participants labeled it "boring," Rolfing recalled. They "didn't want the nurse's 'harassment' model," he said, adding that he often heard feedback like, "I need something convenient, simple and fun."

After launching a new wellness and disease management app in conjunction with its RedBrick Journeys program, participant engagement rates are five times what they were prior to introducing the app.

In the program, participants pick a direction: Get active, lose weight or eat healthier. They then customize their wellness journey by answering a few questions such as "How ready or confident are you?"

With "easy to digest steps," Rolfing said, participants are on their way. Employees can share their progress on social networks and through email to stay accountable for their health and to spur competition.

Participants also decide when they receive alerts. For example, an employee may want a healthy eating alert at 11a.m. before she takes lunch, or on Saturday morning before she goes grocery shopping.

When they reach a certain health target, users receive congratulations and rewards. But the program doesn't end with the accolades. Individuals simply continue on their journey by adding a new goal.

RedBrick cites 96% participation rates for all employees participating in its smartphone initiative - more than twice the participation since introducing the app component. Already six Fortune 500 companies have adopted RedBrick Journeys for their employees.

 

Mobile tech 'absolutely a must'

"In this day in age, [smartphones] are how people interact with each other, such as through Facebook and text messages," says Alan McKiernon, human resources manager at Baker Donelson. So, why not apply that preference to a mobile wellness site?

As the HR manager of one of the top 100 law firms in the country, McKiernon introduced a mobile component from the firm's wellness vendor Provant to fit the busy schedules of Baker Donelson employees. "A lot of our employees are on-the-go people, so having a mobile option for our wellness website was absolutely a must for our workforce," McKiernon says.

More than half of the firm's 1,260 employees have signed up for the mobile site where they can log their food and exercise, check nutrition information and share biometric screening information with health care providers - all without accessing a computer.

Baker Donelson and Provant launched the site with an employee exercise challenge to increase utilization. About 15 teams firm-wide participated in the step challenge, competing among the different offices. At the end of the walking challenge, employees collectively logged over 50,000 miles in six weeks with the top individual logging 2.9 million steps.

"Without that mobile site I don't think people would have been as engaged with [the challenge] as they were," McKiernon says. He admits it works well in his workplace because the firm's lawyers travel often and have hectic schedules, but he still advocates mobile access for different labor forces because "everybody has a cellphone today."

For many people without access to the Internet at home or in the office, cellphones are their touch point to the wider world, says Keith Sheridan, chief technology officer at Provant Health Solutions. "It's about making the solution accessible, easy to use, and frequently visited. A mobile website allows you to do just that on the go, with devices you're already carrying, and using solutions that look familiar from social media," says Sheridan.

 

Texting leads to better Rx adherence

Even if employees don't have smartphones, they can participate in many wellness programs that have a mobile component. Texting, for example, opens new avenues of engagement.

OptumRx uses text messaging in its medication adherence program. Easy and familiar, texting is an ideal way to engage the pharmacy benefit manager's target group for maintaining prescriptions. Individuals can set up general reminders to take their medications or set the alarm for specific times each day. Nearly 70% of medication-related hospital admissions in the United States are due to poor medication adherence, according to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, costing roughly $100 billion each year.

In a recent study of the OptumRx initiative, patients receiving text message reminders had better medication adherence rates than those who did not (85% vs. 77%). Further, for those taking chronic anti-diabetes medication the adherence rates were even higher (91% vs. 82%).

Through the initiative, My Medication Reminders, "they were able to increase adherence significantly for those who used the text messaging," reports Brian K. Solow, M.D., chief medical officer at OptumRx. He adds that these programs could lead to significant savings in health care claims, especially if applied to the diabetic population.

In the future, the PBM hopes to tie its campaign to partners like UnitedHealth to help patients save money on prescription costs through an app or mobile site.

 

Mobile apps of the future

Trackers, apps that track movements and activity, "are the leading driver in the wellness space," said Spriggs. By analyzing a participant's activity and giving them recommendations, wellness programs can reach new heights.

Spriggs pointed to apps already in this space, such as one that tracks sleep patterns. And Rolfing detailed upcoming nutrition apps that detail a meal's caloric and nutritional information when a consumer snaps a picture with their smartphone.

Says Dan Pollard, CEO, myDrugCosts, another prescription benefits app: "The way people interact with information has become real and tangible and it's something they can get a hold of to make different decisions."

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