Back to the Future for Healthcare

Value-based care. ACOs. Narrow networks. Consumerism. These were just a few of topics explored in depth at last week’s National Business Group on Health’s Business Health Agenda 2016 conference at the J.W. Marriott in Washington. But if there was a single thread running through these sessions and many others during the two-and-a-half-day event, it was the increasingly important role technology is playing these days as a disrupting force.

Consider this: It wasn’t a huge surprise to see the NBGH and Xerox Human Resource Services (the former Buck Consultants) unveil the findings of a study titled Emerging Technology to Promote Employee Wellbeing, one of three research projects released at the event.

Looking at four key areas—gamification, mobile technologies, wearable sensors and social media—the study of 213 employers found significant growth in all four areas, with mobile, not surprisingly, leading the way. When the survey was last conducted three years ago, just 16 percent of employers were using mobile apps to engage employees. In this latest study, that number jumped to 50 percent.

The study also revealed that wearable technologies climbed from 16 percent to 34 percent over the three-year period.

Social networking, meanwhile, grew by 50 percent. “People are increasingly relying on others to get their information,” said Scott Marcotte, client technology leader for Xerox HR Services.

Also, as might be expected, mobile topped the list of future senior-leader priorities, with 50 percent of the respondents citing it as a prime focal point over the next year. Many also predicted that texting will be an increasingly important part of their strategy going forward.

As for barriers to adoption, the respondents cited competing business priorities, the lack of buy-in and support from senior management, the lack of a guaranteed return-on-investment (and ways to measure technology’s impact), and confidentiality and privacy as significant hurdles.

“Technology is also enabling employers to more successfully reach family members,” Marcotte pointed out. He noted that more and more of the companies he’s been working with are “creating hyper-personalized experiences for the spouse,” distinct of the employee.

Of course, you would think the Internet and mobile technology would represent today’s best ways to get educational resources into the home and involve the family, right? But at a session titled Leveraging Technology to Reach the Home, several speakers suggested the next frontier might actually be the television. (Though one conference session on narrow networks featured Back to the Future in its title, I couldn’t help but wonder if that phrase might have been better suited for this one.)

In an effort being led by Kaiser Permanente and Comcast, just out of beta, employees at a handful of employers (Comcast, IBM and Lowe’s Cos.) are beginning to deliver information directly into the home through TV apps.

“People are consuming video on their phones and other devices, but the fact is that many are still watching a lot of TV,” said Chris Stenzel, vice president of business development and innovation at Kaiser Permanente.

Participating with Stenzel on the panel were Marc Siry, vice president of strategic development at Comcast Corp.; Lydia Boyd Campbell, director of global integrated health services at IBM Americas; and Bob Ihrie, senior vice president of compensation and benefits at Lowe’s Cos. (Ihre, by the way, will be participating at two sessions at HRE’s Health & Benefits Leadership Conference later this month.)

All the panelists believe TV has the potential to make healthcare engaging and interesting for the entire family.

Maternity was selected as a pilot for the program because it represents a significant percentage of claims and is a time when families are really engaged in the health system. Videos are delivered to the employees’ TVs based on the stage of the pregnancy—so employees and their spouses/partners are delivered content that’s meaningful to them at that moment. The system knows what to deliver based on the due date, which is the only personal information that needs to be offered up to provide the just-in-time information. (Netflix-like binge watching, however, is still an option for those who prefer that approach.)

Television, of course, isn’t the only legacy device that’s attempting a comeback in the world of healthcare. Let’s not forget the 500-year-old watch, which many are predicting, thanks primarily to the Apple Watch, will someday be a major force in wearables.

That promise isn’t lost on vendors such The Vitality Group, which used the conference as a platform for officially announcing a program that enables “Active Rewards” members to fully fund their Apple Watches by meeting monthly targets over a 24-month period. (The founder and CEO of Vitality Group’s parent company, Discovery Group, Adrian Gore, also delivered the opening-keynote address at the NBGH event.)

Alan Pollard, CEO of The Vitality Group, told me the results of the program in South Africa have been “phenomenal,” with the early data revealing that Vitality members using Apple Watches are more physically active than those using any other fitness devices.

In the United States, early adopters of the new Vital program include Amgen, Lockton and DaVita HealthCare Partners. (The program is also available to consumers through Vitality’s arrangement with John Hancock.)