Commentary: Health assessment is still being used in workplace wellness largely as it was 30 years ago – as an annual kick-off event to sort participants into risk-based “swim lanes” for the year. However, devices that enable individuals to track their health throughout the year and other technologies are creating exciting new ways of thinking about this core wellness program component.

The “teachable moment” remains one of the most important potential benefits of a health assessment. Well-designed assessment tools provide a catalyst for lifestyle change by creating receptivity to health-related information and recommendations. In these teachable moments, health improvement messages can be a trigger for taking steps toward behavior changes that reduce health risks and improve health. For example, expertly tailored feedback on an individual’s challenges managing stress or their elevated risk of diabetes can trigger a small first step that ultimately leads to big changes that improve their lives. In many cases, that small first step may be enrolling in a wellness intervention like a health coaching program or worksite challenge.

Also see: Wearable devices: Just a fad or future of wellness?

Thanks to the proliferation of apps and monitoring devices, it is becoming much easier to engage people in such teachable moments beyond receiving annual health assessment results and beyond the workplace. Technology has created a world where people can continually connect to resources supporting their personal health whenever they are open to it. The ability to provide wellness tools that are with people throughout the day opens exciting possibilities to the developer that “gets it right” in triggering and sustaining true engagement over time.

When it comes to health assessment, the potential sources of relevant health data are also proliferating. Today’s sources include activity or participation data from mobile apps (such as weight loss or fitness apps), health care, pharmacy and disability claims, lab tests from doctor visits, personal health records, electronic medical records, electronic health records, and wireless monitoring devices (e.g., activity trackers, blood pressure monitors, scales and metabolic measures). The scope is also expanding to well-being issues like purpose, energy, sleep patterns and psychological, social and financial wellness.   

Workplace wellness programs are moving toward integrating these diverse data sources and extracting relevant data elements from each to provide a more complete and tailored health assessment and action plan. This ability to organize these multiple data sources and make them personally meaningful will enable ever more useful services for every individual in the population, ranging from the very healthy to those with serious chronic health conditions.

Also see: 5 reasons wearable wellness is here to stay

Ultimately, this integration of technology and data sources will increase the value of health assessment because, rather than being a single event at the beginning of each program year, individuals will more organically provide a range of self-reported and objectively measured data (e.g., weight, blood pressure, eating habits, exercise, mood) throughout the year. The result will be a broader, deeper and more dynamic health assessment process that supports an ongoing view of an individual’s personal health and their best opportunities for enhanced well-being. For example, Web apps can deliver immediate value to participants by integrating brief, issue-specific health assessment modules into intervention components such as digital and live coaching, worksite challenges and Web-based “games” and trackers.

Using technology to acquire a continuous stream of data about an individual’s daily life has been labeled the “quantified self” (a term coined by Wired magazine alums Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly), and it has the potential to generate data about behaviors like food consumption, emotional states or moods, blood pressure, and physical and mental performance, among other things.

Also see: Fitbit wellness platform now HIPAA compliant

Using technology to provide dynamic, real-time feedback throughout the year, integrated into a continual stream of program interventions, offers the opportunity to transform the role of assessment in health management. While an annual comprehensive health assessment “event” may be seen as a burden by participants compared to its ongoing perceived value, technology enables offering a series of engaging opportunities for participants to get personally tailored and motivating, real-time feedback on their health that leads immediately to engaging improvement opportunities. An important challenge for wellness providers will be ensuring that any information captured from devices or apps is used in a HIPAA-compliant manner on behalf of the sponsoring organization with the ultimate purpose being to help participants achieve their desired well-being goals.

David Anderson, Ph.D., L.P., is executive vice president and chief health officer for StayWell. Anderson oversees the design of StayWell’s health assessment models.

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