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The future of employee healthcare engagement looks strangely human

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CREDIT: This post was originally published on this site

This feature is part of a series focused exclusively on employee engagement. To view other posts in the series, check out the spotlight page.

The robots aren’t taking over healthcare just yet.

Amid the increasing frequency in the use of terms like ‘artificial intelligence,’ ‘machine learning’ and ‘big data’ in the past year, it can be downright intimidating for HR professionals to distinguish which technologies are ready to disrupt the industry. Their No. 1 benefits objective, after all, is to provide the right offerings to the right people at the right time.

But setting out a buffet of benefits offerings on the company web portal and leaving the rest to chance isn’t the best option. The healthcare system is more complex to navigate than ever before, and most aren’t prepared to be independent consumers.

So while emerging technology will certainly change how employers build their healthcare offerings (among other HR functions), the delivery of and engagement with those benefits still requires a personal, human touch.

Big data, real people

The concept of a second opinion is familiar to most. When you’re told by one physician that you require a knee surgery, for example, it might serve you well to hear from a separate physician whether there might be a better treatment option to avoid the cost/hassle of an operation.

Now, let’s picture this scenario: What if an employee has just been diagnosed with cancer and, instead of hearing only two treatment options, they’ve sought the opinion of nine different doctors with the result being nine substantially different care paths? 

That was exactly the challenge faced by Deborah DiSanzo, General Manager of IBM Watson Health, after her breast cancer diagnosis. Overwhelmed, she turned to her employer’s titular technology program for guidance.

Explaining the process during a keynote presentation at the National Business Group on Health (NBGH)’s Business Health Agenda 2017 conference, DiSanzo outlined how Watson “augmented” her intelligence, scanning the treatments of nine million other breast cancer patients before choosing the most cost-effective treatment for her own situation.

“In combining many forms of data, we can help people manage their own health and develop behavioral triggers that will help employees care for themselves,” DiSanzo said. “We can help employers, also, understand the best paths of care at the lowest costs.”

There’s an important caveat to Watson’s capabilities, however. The quality of the treatment algorithm’s conclusions are only as good as the quality of the information Watson receives. When 8,000 separate articles are written on oncology per day, there’s plenty of opportunities for bad information to pass through.

The point: Even the most advanced cognitive technologies require human input to change healthcare as we know it.


“They [employees]want confidence that the person on the other end of that interaction is an expert and is trustworthy, someone who will keep their confidence, someone who cares about their wellbeing.”

Anne Marie Aponte

SVP of Operations, Accolade


No one company can lead the charge either. DiSanzo said that Watson works with a variety of third-party apps in order to provide complete care options. Welltok, a benefits communication platform, allows employers to create customizable programs for mobile devices that allow for increased healthcare engagement. Sugar.IQ, which allows Watson to provide continuous glucose monitoring for diabetics, was developed in conjunction with Medtronic.

“That just doesn’t happen with the numbers,” Dinesh Sheth, CEO of Green Circle Health, said in an interview regarding cognitive technology and similar solutions in healthcare. “All those things are a fantastic input, to a larger holistic input, in helping people change their behavior.”

Meeting employees where they are

Improving engagement means aligning all components of healthcare benefits in this same holistic manner. That includes providing employees with a sort of human guide, or navigator, through the complex web of plans, treatment options and vendors.

This is the role embraced by one vendor, Accolade, which provides a concierge-style service for the employees of its clients. When an employee calls Accolade, they’re directed to a ‘health assistant,’ a real person who will work with them throughout the treatment process.

Anne Marie Aponte, Senior Vice President of Operations at Accolade, said the company’s aim in creating the health assistant role was to build a new profession entirely. Much in the same way one might require a lawyer to help them navigate the legal system, Aponte explained, health assistants provide a point of reference for clients Above all else, trust is key to the program’s success.

“They [employees]want confidence that the person on the other end of that interaction is an expert and is trustworthy,” Aponte said, “someone who will keep their confidence, someone who cares about their wellbeing.”

Aponte said she’s taken notice of the desks of Accolade’s some 250 health assistants, upon which she’s seen thank-you cards, family photos and other messages of appreciation from clients, some of whom they’ve saved tens of thousands of dollars in costs.

“Those are the high stakes our clients are dealing with,” Aponte said. “We have people who are the first person they call when the stakes are high.”

Playing to different tastes

It’s a reality that benefits administrators understand all too well: Not everyone wants to be reached out to in the same manner when it comes to healthcare.

Accolade, for example, works with a diverse collection of clients. Worker populations could range from office workers to truck drivers. The latter is the case with AmeriGas, an Accolade client. AmeriGas’ Director of Corporate HR for Benefits and Workforce Health, Andy Rosa, presented with Aponte at Business Health Agenda.

Rosa talked about the challenge of engaging a mobile workforce, especially in a profession where physical health has a strong impact on whether an employee can complete their day-to-day tasks. Getting managers involved in promoting Accolade’s services to employees is a huge component of keeping AmeriGas employees aware.

“If they don’t know about the benefits we offer at the time they need them, we’ve failed them,” Rosa said. That’s why managers are encouraged to check in with drivers and other employees when health issues arise, directing them to Accolade when appropriate. It ends up being a win-win situation for both staff and supervisor.

“In the eyes of the manager, that’s empowered them,” Rosa said. “They feel like they’ve done something good.”

These type of solutions may require a certain amount of restructuring and planning before implementation, Aponte said. They should also be accessible to employees via a variety of platforms, whether that’s text, video or other mobile applications.

“We recognize that someone’s occupation influences how they might use healthcare and engage with solutions like Accolade,” Aponte said. “You’ve got to find multiple ways to get in touch with people and meet them where they are.”

That theme of meeting employees on a level to which they can relate was echoed by several professionals during the Business Health Agenda conference. Ron Drayton, General Manager of Benefits at General Mills, spoke to the importance of appealing to different personalities and demographics.

“It’s on us to accept that we own communications,” Drayton said. “We need to engage employees and they have a part to play.”

In the same way, the idea of coaching employees through their decisions also seems to be an important factor in driving engagement. Sheth, in explaining Green Circle Health’s approach, talked about the importance of having a guide as a major component of success in engagement.

“It is the coaching feel that is going to make your lifestyle changes sustainable,” he said.

The ultimate goal of engagement, then, is not just to provide just-in-time services, but also to direct care in such a way that employees manage their own wellness better. Improving your workforce’s quality of life is just as important to consider as their immediate medical problems.

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