Tackling chronic disease with real-time texting support

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Digital healthcare programs are exploding in popularity — they help reduce costs and medical expenditures, improve productivity and presenteeism, and reduce workplace injuries, says Julia Hu, CEO of Lark Health, a digital health company.

Lark’s prevention program provides text message counseling that allows users to chat with coaches at any given time, and when necessary reach expert nurses and coaches to make changes to medication or handle a significant blood sugar event, for example.

“The nice thing with [digital tools like] a text message is that you don't have to go to a doctor, nurse or coach,” she says. “You don't have to make those appointments and leave for a few hours. You can do it in three to five minutes in a line in the supermarket, at night in your bed or whenever you need that help.”

Additionally, digital healthcare programs are now tackling chronic conditions by supporting employees to lose weight, quit smoking, become more active, sleep better, reduce stress and improve their diet.

Employee Benefit News spoke to Hu about how digital healthcare can provide a full spectrum, holistic approach to disease prevention and wellness.

Lark Health’s new program, “Lark Prevention,” combines behavioral healthcare with traditional wellness programs to prevent chronic disease. Did you see a demand from employers for a product like this?
We saw this clear need in the employer market to go beyond the traditional wellness products out there, like programs that only counted steps or calories. Those are great, but there's a lot of employees that want to achieve broader help. And we apply a more clinically rigorous approach to that, so that [employees] can stay healthy, quit smoking or vaping, and deal with feelings of anxiety or depression in a more healthy way. So we saw this demand where it wasn't chronic disease and it wasn't wellness. We call it prevention, which is kind of in between the two.

Why is the digital aspect an important part of this program and what does it do for employers and employees?
We decided to focus on creating a tech-first solution because we saw the need for scalability. Conversational AI is the only way to provide highly personalized care that is a friendly pat on the back and that is also watching over you to understand what you're struggling with. We use the data that we're collecting from phone sensors from the devices to provide highly contextualized and personalized interventions for that person.

If [an employee] is really struggling with an urgent issue like a hypoglycemic event, that is something that a live clinician or nurse needs to attend to. So through Lark’s AI generated text messaging service, the AI Lark coach will escalate the situation to a live clinician and provide the data so that the clinician can perform at the top of their license and help that member in need.

But the wonderful thing about having a compassionate AI text messaging coach is that we can always be there. [We can be there at] 12 a.m. when someone's feeling really stressed. We can be there in real time chatting, and provide mindfulness and meditation exercises, and take the patient through those tough times.

How can programs like this help employers with the costs of chronic or serious diseases?
Wellness doesn't fully address the goal of preventative care, which is keeping people healthy and happy and preventing the development of chronic disease. You don't want to wait until the employer has to pay for a chronic condition or the employee has to deal with a disease they have to manage all their lives. We’re in this era where chronic disease is a real epidemic, and employers are bearing that cost. We need tools that address a number of risk factors and we need to prevent them from getting chronic diseases. For us, having a behavioral health-centric service, where we're focusing on the underlying issues, is really critical because we can address these risk factors and we can do it at scale. By stepping back and using this holistic approach of managing stress, weight issues, smoking behaviors and other habits, we coach individuals to ultimately prevent more serious medical issues and chronic conditions in life, which we think will ultimately give employers a happy, healthy and present workforce.

What is the importance of taking a holistic approach to wellness, rather than focusing on one specific problem?
We believe that all of these things are intertwined. As someone who's had a chronic condition all her life, if it were not for my dad and my pediatrician – who not only coached me on how to manage my chronic disease, but taught me better habits [like] how to have a healthier diet – I don't think I would be able to manage my condition as well today. Behavioral health, stress management and the habit building pieces are core to chronic disease and prevention as a whole. That's why we're focusing on the whole self rather than one single point issue.

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