As the gad­gets be­come more pop­u­lar, em­ploy­ers should in­cor­po­rate them into holis­tic well­ness pro­grams.

Employee Benefit News - - FEATURES - By BRUCE SHUTAN

Amer­ica’s ob­ses­sion with gad­gets con­tin­ues to make its way into the work­place well­ness arena, but whether wear­able tech­nol­ogy ac­tu­ally im­proves health out­comes and saves em­ploy­ers money in the long run is still a mat­ter of de­bate. Some skep­tics even dis­miss the tech­nol­ogy as a waste of money. There’s a lot em­ploy­ers should con­sider when look­ing to in­te­grate wear­ables into their well­ness pro­grams.

Strong con­sumer de­mand is driv­ing work­places to in­cor­po­rate the lat­est gad­gets into their well­ness pro­grams, says Spring­buk founder Phil Daniels. His com­pany — an Indianapolis health an­a­lyt­ics firm that serves mid- to large-size em­ploy­ers — re­cently re­leased the Em­ployer Guide to Wear­ables 2.0, a three-part study that re­views key pref­er­ences, fea­tures and im­ple­men­ta­tion con­sid­er­a­tions of em­ploy­ers for wear­ables in cor­po­rate well­ness pro­grams.

The study found that more and more, em­ploy­ers are turn­ing to the in­cor­po­ra­tion of wear­able tech­nol­ogy in well­ness pro­grams for em­ploy­ees. Use of such de­vices is up 10% from 2015 find­ings, with 35% of em­ploy­ers now us­ing wear­ables in their work­place well­ness pro­grams, Spring­buk found. Mean­while, nearly half of em­ploy­ers say they’re con­sid­er­ing pur­chas­ing such de­vices over the next 12 months. At least one in six U.S. con­sumers use wear­ables in the form of ei­ther a smart­watch or a fit­ness band.

And for some em­ploy­ers, wear­ables are hav­ing a pos­i­tive im­pact on both em­ploy­ees’ health and their own costs.

A re­cent Wear­ables in Well­ness Case Study Re­port from the non­profit Health En­hance­ment Re­search Or­ga­ni­za­tion (HERO) spot­lighted com­pa­nies like global en­ergy firm BP, which started in­cor­po­rat­ing wear­ables in 2013. To­day, more than 75% of el­i­gi­ble par­tic­i­pants en­roll in the com­pany’s an­nual "Mil­lion Step Chal­lenge," and 79% reach their goal.

BP has mod­i­fied the pro­gram over the years to add goals be­yond one mil­lion steps, as well as smaller goals for less ac­tive par­tic­i­pants who are un­able to achieve the mil­lion-step goal. As a re­sult, the pro­gram has been con­sis­tently pop­u­lar with par­tic­i­pants, HERO says.

De­spite such suc­cesses, the HERO re­port makes clear, wear­ables are most ef­fec­tive when em­ploy­ers un­der­stand their role in a larger well­ness ini­tia­tive.

“We see a lot of prom­ise in the use of wear­ables as a com­po­nent of a com­pre­hen­sive work­place well­ness pro­gram,” says Jessica Gross­meier, vice pres­i­dent of re­search for HERO. “Early re­search sup­ports that a de­vice, on its own, will not change health be­hav­iors over the long term.”

Dave Hoinville, di­rec­tor of busi­ness devel­op­ment at myIn­er­tia, a health con­sul­tant, agrees, not­ing that other crit­i­cal com­po­nents must be in­cor­po­rated into a well­ness pro­gram for it to sus­tain suc­cess. Th­ese in­clude every­thing from fi­nan­cial in­cen­tives and a cul­ture of health to so­cial con­nec­tions and great cus­tomer ser­vice.

Is the price right?

There are many con­sid­er­a­tions for em­ploy­ers to re­view when shop­ping for the right well­ness tools. The start­ing point is usu­ally price, which Daniels says can range any­where from about $30 or $40 to sev­eral hun­dred dol­lars per de­vice. “The math adds up quickly if you’re spend­ing that kind of money on 1,000 em­ploy­ees,” he notes.

An­other crit­i­cal fac­tor is peer-topeer con­nec­tiv­ity — the so­cial as­pect of walk­ing chal­lenges and other ac­tiv­i­ties that he says can “in­cen­tivize” the work­force to break its seden­tary desk life­style.

Daniels is en­cour­aged that among slightly more than half of the sub­jects his com­pany stud­ied, im­prov­ing the health of mem­bers was cited as the pri­mary rea­son for us­ing wear­able de­vices. An­other hope­ful sign? Nearly 42% said the use of wear­ables was to drive be­hav­ioral change, Spring­buk found. “Less im­por­tant to em­ploy­ers was the cool­ness fac­tor of wear­ables,” he adds.

Spring­buk’s re­search in­cludes re­sponses from em­ploy­ers, ben­e­fit con­sul­tants and well­ness ven­dors who par­tic­i­pated in an award pro­gram in­volv­ing more than 8,000 em­ploy­ers na­tion­ally. It in­cludes a se­cond sur­vey of more than 820 em­ploy­ers who as­sessed the fea­tures, pref­er­ences and in­te­gra­tion of wear­ables.

The ROI de­bate

The po­ten­tial re­turn on in­vest­ment for em­ploy­ers that make wear­ables a cen­ter­piece of their well­ness pro­gram is sig­nif­i­cant, ac­cord­ing to Daniels.

In a study of ac­tiv­ity-track­ing de­vices, Spring­buk found that health­care costs for em­ploy­ees with ac­cess to a Fitbit av­er­aged $1,242 less af­ter two years than those in a con­trol group. Af­ter two years, em­ploy­ees who opted into the pro­gram had health­care costs that were on av­er­age 24.5% less than that of a con­trol group.

In re­cent years, how­ever, the well­ness in­dus­try has been un­der fire for stak­ing ROI claims that crit­ics say are ex­ceed­ingly dif­fi­cult — if not im­pos­si­ble — to prove.

Two such skep­tics are Al Lewis and Vik Khanna, co-founders of a com­pany called Quizzify, which em­pha­sizes the need for em­ploy­ers to use health­care lit­er­acy to move the nee­dle on cost and out­comes. Khanna, who also is a health­care en­tre­pre­neur, even co-au­thored an ar­ti­cle ti­tled “It might be time to throw your fit­ness wear­able in the trash.”

Khanna says there’s no ev­i­dence that wear­able prod­ucts ac­tu­ally work. “It’s one of the great flaws with the sci­en­tific process in this coun­try as it ap­plies to the dis­sem­i­na­tion of good data,” he ex­plains. An­other is­sue is that the wear­able in­dus­try is “play­ing to peo­ple’s needs, in­ter­ests, de­sires [and] fas­ci­na­tion with every­thing app- and gizmo-re­lated,” he says.

De­spite the never-end­ing push for more bells and whis­tles in wear­ables, Hoinsville be­lieves sim­plic­ity

“What we’re see­ing is that if you can get peo­ple to the 4,000, 5,000, 6,000 steps per day av­er­age, then you will ac­tu­ally start to see a dif­fer­ence in their health out­comes.”

is what res­onates with most peo­ple. That means not hav­ing to worry about recharg­ing de­vices ev­ery few days or won­der­ing whether a Fitbit is wa­ter­proof. The most ef­fec­tive way for com­pa­nies to bet­ter man­age their over­all med­i­cal care costs is to help em­ploy­ees un­der­stand and nav­i­gate a mar­ket­place “filled with con­fus­ing, con­tra­dic­tory, non-ev­i­dence-based in­for­ma­tion,” Khanna sug­gests. “That’s what health lit­er­acy is all about.”

The goal should be to equip em­ploy­ees with “hon­est, cred­i­ble, ver­i­fi­able, ev­i­dence-based in­for­ma­tion so that they can both make health­ier choices for them­selves on a day-to-day ba­sis,” he says, “but also, when it comes to us­ing their med­i­cal care ben­e­fits, [to] do so in a man­ner that is safer, smarter and more cost-ef­fec­tive. And there is no wear­able that gets them to ei­ther of those des­ti­na­tions.”

A pre­dic­tive per­spec­tive

A cor­po­rate well­ness pro­gram built around only an on­line health-risk as­sess­ment, an­nual checkup and sev­eral brown-bag lunch events will not in­flu­ence em­ployee be­hav­ior or ROI, Hoinsville agrees. But he’s cer­tain that wear­ables have a pos­i­tive im­pact, though it could take up to four or five years of sus­tained be­hav­ior change to ac­tu­ally lower med­i­cal claims.

“What we’re see­ing is that if you can get peo­ple to the 4,000, 5,000, 6,000 steps per day av­er­age, then you will ac­tu­ally start to see a dif­fer­ence in their health out­comes,” he says, not­ing that most peo­ple are in the 1,500 to 2,500 range.

Daniels pre­dicts de­vices will be added to the wear­ables cat­e­gory that do more than track heart rate and sleep or sit­ting time. As more data is gen­er­ated, he be­lieves, the in­dus­try will be­come more in­tel­li­gent about the way it’s ap­plied. For ex­am­ple, var­i­ous rec­om­men­da­tions could be made to work­place well­ness pro­grams based on the unique needs or chal­lenges of each em­ployee pop­u­la­tion.

Ad­di­tion­ally, Daniels says, com­bin­ing data from wear­ables with num­bers from bio­met­ric screen­ings, med­i­cal claims, phar­macy us­age, ab­sen­teeism, pro­duc­tiv­ity and so on can have a pow­er­ful im­pact on in­di­vid­ual and col­lec­tive em­ployee health.

“That data will be­come avail­able on more true health fac­tors, which is ex­cit­ing for us,” he says, ref­er­enc­ing the re­cent in­clu­sion of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence in his com­pany’s soft­ware plat­form. “From a pre­dic­tive stand­point, we’re ac­tu­ally us­ing ex­ist­ing data to pre­dict fu­ture health costs and dis­ease states in at-risk mem­bers with 99% ac­cu­racy.”

Bruce Shutan is a Los An­ge­les free­lance writer.

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