How IT can help corporate wellness programmes It is time to usher in the digital era of health management in organisations.

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Information Technology (IT) is a potent weapon in the wellness manager’s arsenal. IT tools and techniques have now emerged for the accurate capture of an individual’s health and the consequent analysis of both individual and community health data.

The cornerstone of a wellness programme is reliable data about the health of an individual. Some years ago, for an individual to report his health data would have been insurmountably onerous. Business corporations also would have found the implementation of wellness programmes tedious and unreliable. Wearable technology devices, arguably one of the most important IT developments, are ushering in a new reality. With practically no effort required on the part of the individual, save for his wearing a device most of the time, accurate data can be automatically reported on the number of steps he walks, his pulse rate, sleep patterns and blood pressure. More advanced devices are experimenting automated reporting on other health parameters such as blood glucose and cholesterol levels. While still nascent, the use of wearable devices is galloping.

In 2014, 78.1 million wearable devices were shipped compared to 28.8 million units in 2013 ­representing a 172 per cent growth in the market size. The year 2015 is expected to have recorded equally impressive gains. Fitbit, the leading brand of wristbands, claims in its advertisement that 33 per cent of its shipments were accounted for by the corporate sector in a clear signal that companies are getting serious about employee wellness.

In 2014, 78.1 million wearable health devices were shipped compared to 28.8 million units in 2013 representing a 172 per cent growth.

The first and the most important step in the implementation of a wellness programme is creating employee engagement. Compelling communication, orderly change management and incentive mechanisms encourage the individual employee to report his health data diligently. Managements should help employees overcome their insecurities about reporting their health data. The insecurity of the employees may be mitigated in part by creating the awareness that most countries outlaw the access and use of an individual’s health data without her permission.

Companies could give their commitment that such data would be used only in the aggregated form and an individual’s data would neither be accessed as such nor revealed to anybody except the individual himself. In most instances, companies would be interested in improving the health of groups of employees rather than an individual’s. Such groups could be defined variously as, for example, groups at cardiac risk, diabetes risk and mental health risk. Based on group data and the insights gleaned therefrom, companies could then implement informed wellness interventions rather than fly blind with the hope that well-intended wellness expenditure would somehow improve the health of the employees. The analysis performed by companies on group data aggregated from individual data may then be used to provide group incentives for the betterment of health.

Compelling communication, orderly change management and incentive mechanisms encourage individual employees to report their   health data diligently.

Recently, United Healthcare launched a wellness programme, based largely on the number of steps an individual walks, that lets employees earn incentives of up to $1,400 a year.  A study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine, March 2016, authored by Mitesh Patel from the University of Pennsylvania and others, discusses the dynamics of incentives by studying 76 four-member teams. The study concludes that a combination of individual and group incentives might work better than just either. Programmes that use the health data of an individual to provide individual incentives would require the prior consent of the individual. These programmes would become extensions of corporate sports — marathons, sprints, cricket matches and the like — that are sponsored by companies, except that they may be happening throughout the month or year. Participation would be driven by the psychological and material incentives.

Already billions of bits of individual health data from wearable devices are being accumulated on the cloud. Economics teaches us that data gathered is used in every possible way (without breaking the law). The digital era of corporate wellness and health management would be built on the foundation of this data and would be dramatically different from what it has been in the past. Anything dramatically different, in the beginning, may sound bizarre until it becomes the new normal. Companies that triumph over their xenophobic fears of the new wellness programmes will quickly establish a firm lead over their competitors. I am privileged to be assisting such visionary companies who are early adopters of IT-enabled wellness programmes.

If the important first step of persuading employees to engage enough with wellness programmes and diligently report (through wearable technologies or manually) their health data is taken, as the cliché goes, half the battle is won. Thereafter, a “health destiny” may be crafted for every company with the numerous exciting possibilities presented by IT techniques such as analytics and Artificial Intelligence (AI). The health destiny will most likely become the strongest determinant of competitive advantage.

(The writer is Founder, Anantara Solutions Pvt Limited.  Email: gbprabhat@gmail.com)

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