Meaningful Health Benefits For All (HR.com)
A data-driven approach to health care benefits that bridge equity gaps
By Jason Elliott | September 9, 2022 Read time: 5 min
Any HR executive today will tell you how challenging the current environment is for attracting and retaining talent. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 11.2 million open job positions (vacancies) across the US at the end of Q2 2022. Hence, it stands to reason that organizations are rolling out the red carpet to try to appeal to job-seekers, offering sign-on bonuses as well as comprehensive health and financial benefits. Wellness rewards and a varied suite of ancillary health benefits have become the norm rather than the exception.
While the impact of these comprehensive ancillary benefits can be significant, so can the cost—especially since inflation is at a 40-year high. Therefore, data analytics are more vital now than in the past for driving decisions around the offering, expanding, or discontinuing various programs. The rise in the availability of new data enables nuanced and sophisticated analyses to determine the value of “total rewards” packages.
Analytics Evolution: Powerful Revelations from Digital Data Connections
For years, the set of metrics used to measure the success of any health benefits program was limited to simple data elements available in standard claims. For example, the number of members who enrolled in a program, or the number of members who had one visit with a health care provider. Unfortunately, measurable health impacts usually do not occur immediately. Therefore, the success of a program cannot be determined immediately with any level of confidence.
However, enrollment metrics are no longer the only available barometer for engagement. The aggregation of traditional claims with non-traditional digital data sets now allows us to connect dots that were previously either invisible or inaccessible, thus revealing new trends and powerful insights.
The ability to identify how members engage with a certain program—and why—gives organizations the power to build programs around their employees’ real-life needs and make progress in delivering on the triple aim of reducing cost, improving health, and improving quality and experience. Questions commonly asked of our data analytics teams recently include:
- How often are employees using our wellness or chronic condition management programs?
- Are engagement patterns different for different sub-populations?
- Have those programs yielded positive health outcomes?
- Are there other health gaps that should be addressed instead?
Engagement in a program has been redefined. For example, rather than tracking just a daily step count in a fitness program, granular metrics like the frequency and intensity of biking, running, weight training, or even dancing are used in tandem with medical and pharmacy claims to identify discernible, meaningful, and quantifiable value.
Other examples of data types frequently leveraged from various solutions include biometrics (e.g., BMI, BP), lab tests (e.g., blood sugar, cholesterol, A1C, etc.), sleep patterns, meditation and mindfulness minutes, mood changes, dietary changes, etc.
It is possible to then look holistically at a program’s impact on employees’ health, wellbeing, productivity, quality of life, retention, disability avoidance, and other indicators—driving more effective benefits decisions.
The concept of coordinated and continuous care is not new, but clinical and digital transformation across the industry is now bringing us closer to achieving it. Understanding an individual’s interactions with care when they are healthy and not just when they are ill drives policy changes to reduce the burden of illness.
New Insights to Articulate Value
All programs offer something and will benefit some of the people in an organization. Often, the question is whether the magnitude of the benefit derived is enough to offset the cost of the program itself. This, in turn, drives decisions around expanding or discontinuing a solution.
One large employer, for instance, offered two separate wellness programs that promoted a healthy lifestyle with diet and exercise goals. However, one focused more on the exercise component while the other concentrated on healthy and mindful eating. When the employer tried to assess the effectiveness of both programs to determine if one added more value than the other overall, the data showed a very interesting and unique pattern. It revealed that adoption and engagement in the two solutions differed along racial, ethnic, and income lines. Different populations engaged with these solutions at similar levels for reasons outside of health status. As a result, the company decided to retain both programs since they obviously were essential to varied groups.
Likewise, mental well-being is now universally recognized as a critical part of overall health. Many organizations are compiling a profile of those who engage with their mental well-being solutions (e.g., EAP mental health programs) and evaluating their impact on employees’ medical comorbid conditions.
For one such organization, bringing together medical, pharmacy, and mental health EAP (digital) data brought to light an interesting link between anxiety and heart disease. Specifically, 30% of those with a new diagnosis of anxiety also had a new diagnosis of hypertension and/ or ischemic heart disease in the same year. They also sought care for other indicators of acute stress, such as flare-ups of autoimmune conditions. This insight helped the benefits team better align their concierge services to ensure a more holistic health model, where the mental, emotional, and physical health needs were addressed together.
Employers are also making major changes to benefit designs in a deliberate effort to remove barriers to care access, especially since the pandemic exposed the vulnerabilities of low-income and minority communities to weather major health storms.
As an example, several organizations have removed waiting periods (typically 30-90 days) for new employees to become eligible for health and financial benefits. Others have expanded paid sick time benefits for all workers, including hourly employees for whom paid sick time used to be rare. Some organizations that offer wellness rewards and incentives have done away with mandatory activities with incremental payouts.
Value for All
Across health care, clinical and digital transformations are making it easier to analyze how people interact with health benefits—both mental and physical health, when sick and when well. Consequently, data also makes it possible to evaluate how the advantages of various programs differ for different subpopulations. When benefits are designed for total well-being, their value cannot be measured in silos—hence data analysts have become the new superheroes.