The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected how many of us live and work, accelerating the adoption of technology for everything from grocery shopping to workout routines. Health care has been no exception, with technology reshaping how many people select – and use – their health care benefits.
In most cases, the practice of employees gathering in a conference room to review health plan options is a distant memory. Even before COVID-19, technology was transforming how many employers select and offer health benefits to employees, simultaneously improving access to information while putting added responsibility on employees to make more informed decisions.
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New technologies can help with those efforts. With the COVID-19 pandemic underscoring the importance of providing people with access to health care benefits, information and services, employers are in a unique position to help simplify the health care experience for employees, support their well-being and potentially curb costs.
As millions of Americans make health care benefit decisions during open enrollment, here are five technology-related tips Arizona employers should consider now and in the future:
Make Virtual Care a Priority. COVID-19 was a watershed moment for telehealth, with the use of remote care surging dramatically since the pandemic started. While many people have returned to in-person care, some medical treatments, such as for urgent and behavioral health care services, continue to stay at or above pre-pandemic levels. To help employees access care remotely, it is important to offer health plans that include coverage for virtual care, including options for telehealth visits with their own doctors and 24/7 access to national care providers. As we’ve seen, virtual care can be a more convenient and affordable way for people to visit with a doctor about various health issues, ranging from urgent and routine care, ongoing chronic condition management, behavioral health, and specialty care such as oral, eye and hearing health.
Add Digital Fitness Apps. Most U.S. employers offer well-being programs, many of which include financial incentives for healthy activities such as walking, going to the gym or meeting certain health benchmarks (e.g., cholesterol levels, body mass index or non-nicotine use). To make these programs even more useful, some employers and health plans are now including access to digital fitness apps at no additional cost, helping people start – or enhance – their at-home fitness routines. With some people hesitant to return to public gyms due to concerns about contracting COVID-19, offering employees digital fitness apps is an increasingly popular option to help individuals stay active while staying safe.
Adopt Remote-Patient Monitoring Programs. Remote-patient monitoring programs and so-called digital therapeutics are becoming increasingly sophisticated, helping people and care professionals make more data-driven treatment decisions while driving greater personal engagement. While these approaches can vary, some integrate virtual care, wearable devices, and artificial intelligence to remove barriers to care, customize treatments and help people – and care professionals – make decisions based on real-time data. These resources may help prevent disease complications, while helping some people avoiding the need for emergency or hospital care. For instance, some are providing people with type 2 diabetes with integrated tools that include a continuous glucose monitor, activity tracker, app-based notifications, and one-on-one coaching and support. The goal is to help encourage healthier lifestyle decisions, such as food choices, movement, and sleep patterns, while reducing spikes in blood sugar levels and, in some cases, even achieving type 2 diabetes remission.
Make Sense of Big Data. Big data is a buzzword for information that is only meaningful if employers can make sense of it and apply it accordingly. To that end, employers may now have important access to online resources that can enable managers to analyze and make sense of health data, accounting for aggregate medical, prescription and specialty claims, demographics, and clinical and well-being information. This can provide an analytics-driven roadmap to help employers implement tailored clinical management and employee-engagement programs, which may help improve health outcomes, offer industry-specific health programs, mitigate expenses, and help employees take charge of their health. Likewise, predictive analytics is being used to help address social determinants of health, such as access to nutritious food and affordable housing. With research suggesting that various social barriers impact up to 80% of a person’s health, some employers are investing in programs that use data to proactively identify people with these issues and then connect them to community resources for support.
Bundle Benefits. While many people may focus on medical coverage during open enrollment, it is important that employees avoid overlooking specialty benefits such as vision, dental, hearing and accident protection. In fact, a recent UnitedHealthcare survey found that 81% of respondents said having access to specialty benefits is “important.” Plus, companies that combine medical coverage with specialty benefits through a single health care company may be able to leverage data to help improve health outcomes, flag gaps in care, drive productivity, and reduce costs. Some “bundle and save” programs enable employers to save up to 4% on medical premiums through improved health outcomes and operational simplification.
By considering these tips, employers can use technology to help increase employee retention and satisfaction, while building a culture of well-being amid COVID-19 and moving forward.
Dr. Donna O’Shea is chief medical officer of population health for UnitedHealthcare.