More and more benefits technology solutions are continuing to pop up, from wearables to apps. But with so many solutions, how can employers choose? And are employees finding the large number of solutions to be overwhelming?

Employee Benefit News spoke to Brian Marcotte, president and CEO at National Business Group on Health, and Mike Thompson, president and CEO of the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions, about how technology is affecting the benefits industry — and what employers need to do to embrace it.

[Image credit: Bloomberg]
[Image credit: Bloomberg]

What follows is an edited version of the discussion.

Employee Benefit News: What are you seeing in regards to the use of technology in the benefits industry?

Brian Marcotte: I think we are seeing an explosion in terms of the number of point solutions that are available now that are leveraging data and technology in trying to bring solutions in more real time. Today for employers, if your communications strategy doesn’t include mobile, then it’s incomplete. I think that’s an opportunity to push information to consumers to engage them in what’s important to them. We are seeing a shift [from] a one-size-fits-all communications approach to a personalized approach. And we are seeing that in engagement platforms, like Jiff or Revive, or point solutions like Livongo, which addresses diabetes, which can really engage somebody in the moment.

EBN: With this explosion in solutions, is there a downside to it, like product fatigue?

Mike Thompson: I think we’re in solution overload. We’ve got point solutions for everything possible that can happen to an individual, and that’s unlimited. The innovation moving forward is thinking about how to rationalize that in a way that consumers can actually take advantage of the myriad of technologies and solutions that are available when they need it. The challenge to employers is how to communicate that on a real-time basis.

EBN: Do you have communications tips for employers?

Thompson: I think we started with the idea that we need to systematically deal with every disease or with every need. But I think we are shifting into a more total-person way of thinking about things. We need to understand that individuals have multiple needs and those needs change over time, and they can’t anticipate everything they are going to need at the time we try to communicate things. We need a level of advocacy and engagement that employers can listen to the broader needs of employees, understand the underlying issues they are facing and guide them to resources. It’s not that employers won’t offer broad resources; it’s to build a system that’s more personable and intimate for the employee to be supported.

EBN: How can they do that?

Marcotte: A good example is if you look at traditional programs in the way they have been structured for an employer. Employers would set up a program and almost try to force employees into those programs. Say someone is at risk for high cholesterol; they would force them to lower it. Well it’s very hard to engage someone doing that. Employers are trying to understand what the priority is for their employee and are thinking, ‘What resources could I bring to fit their needs,’ as opposed to what I think their needs are.

Start with a financial wellbeing program that might help them manage their budget or address debt. Between the data capabilities we have today, with predictive analytics, and the availability to get out in front and personalize information to an individual, [employers] can engage people differently and optimize programs. I think these platforms — which leverage data and technology to reach people in the moment to bring solutions to them — will help them be the best person they can be, as opposed to the people we want them to be.

EBN: What are the best ways to reach and engage employees?

Thompson: In many ways we’ve been led to believe it will all be a technology-based solution. But more and more, there will be a hybrid of high-touch and high-tech, which will optimize and most engage effectively. People still like to talk to people. We are not at the point in benefits where artificial intelligence is driving the shift.

Marcotte: There are still a lot of companies that push out general communications about what’s available, and it only works if you happen to catch someone at that time who needs it. But really that’s out of sight, out of mind for most employees unless they need it. So a shift to personalization is really what we are seeing and need more of.

EBN: Different employers have different needs, but generally speaking, what kind of tech-based apps or programs are most appealing to employers right now?

Thompson: There’s a lot more focus on brain health — things like mindfulness, resilience — there’s a lot of innovation in those spaces. Financial wellbeing continues to be very hot. It’s so integral to the employer relationship and people’s ability to deal with their day-to-day lives. Increasingly, some of the more progressive companies are figuring out, ‘How do we integrate other things more effectively and bring it together to a broader wellbeing framework?’

EBN: So you think that’s a big change from years past?

Thompson: It’s not the benefits we grew up with, which is life, disability, medical. It’s more of a framing around how do we support the broader needs of our employees and their families.

Marcotte: If we go back 20 years with benefits, we see how much we’ve changed. Today it’s more about experience: How do I help employees optimize the resources we are making available to them? And I think that’s an important shift we are seeing over the years — from value of benefits to improving the experience of benefits for the employee and their family.

EBN: When we talk about innovation and technology, in general would you say the benefits space and employers are behind the curve or ahead of the curve?

Thompson: I think we are behind in some areas and we’re moving very fast in others. There are so many solutions and a number of different ways to engage people through technology; it’s a bit overwhelming. On the flip side, when we look at traditional benefits, we still have a way to go in improving the consumer experience and simplifying things. Just look at the explanation of benefits — it’s as complex and archaic as it was 20 years ago.

Marcotte: On some level, I think it’s really exciting. We are at an age of innovation for the benefits community. I don’t think we’ve ever seen so much change so quickly, every year. And it means that the solutions we thought were innovative 2-3 years ago could get outdated very quickly. I think the benefits strategy has to recognize that the in age of innovation, we need to be thinking more around broader platforms. [Employers should keep] technologies as long as they are innovative and update continuously to keep the programs and experience fresh for employees. The pace of change and the pace of opportunity has never been greater. And it’s really the benefits executive who is the architect of that experience who will make the difference in the long run.

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