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Wellness Programs Go High Tech

Wellness Programs Go High Tech

When EMC, a Massachusetts data storage firm, decided to beef up its wellness program three years ago, it asked workers to bypass treadmills and stationary bikes and take a spin on an unexpected device: A computer.

A deal with Internet health-information portal WebMD and another with data warehouse provider Ingenix created a program that provided workers with the online resources to manage their own healthcare needs, while giving management the ability to drill through data and pinpoint the top healthcare problems impacting EMC employees.

“Being a high-tech company, we wanted to take a high-tech approach to wellness,” said Delia Vetter, EMC’s director of benefits. “With our WebMD portals and our data warehouse, we have two technologies that work together so that we can provide a healthcare program that targets the specific needs of our employees.”

Vetter says the company is now able to keep track of the top ten prescription drugs being used by its employees and the top ten health issues affecting its workforce. With that data, EMC can quickly develop wellness programs and workshops that meet the most pressing needs of its employees.

Experts say many of the companies that could benefit the most from these innovations are those with a high percentage of older workers, whose wellness needs and desires are often more complex than those of their younger colleagues.

“To have a successful wellness program, you have to think much broader than handing out gym memberships,” said Mary Swanson, who has helped implement a number of popular wellness programs for workers over the age of 50 as the founder and CEO of HealthCare Dimensions, Inc. and the executive vice chairman of AXIA Health Management.

“You need to provide a model that lets employees set their own goals,” she says. “If they can’t customize their own goals, it won’t work. One size does not fit all.”

John Harris, principal of Harris HealthTrends, an Ohio-based wellness consultant with 120 clients nationwide, says one of the most exciting new trends in wellness is telephonic healthcare counseling, a system that can provide workers with instant access to a wealth of information and their very own — albeit remote — wellness coach.

Harris, who has been designing corporate wellness programs for three decades, says telephonic counseling can be particularly beneficial for high-risk and older workers, who may need more one-on-one coaching and may not be ready to jump straight into an exercise program at the local gym.

“We find that telephonic coaching is a valuable tool for workers who are unlikely to go to the gym on their own, or for those who may be uncomfortable sitting in a room and discussing issues like weight loss in front of other employees,” he said. “Telephonic coaching, where someone is there to hold their hand and direct them through a program step by step, is a more comfortable option for a lot of people.”

Harris says there four main benefits of telephonic coaching:

  • It’s convenient. “You can call in at 9 p.m. in your pajamas if you want,” Harris said.
  • There’s a degree of anonymity, which Harris says makes many employees feel more comfortable discussing their health care needs and concerns.
  • It’s flexible and customizable. The program, which collects data from employees each time they call in, provides workers with a unique healthcare regimen designed to meet their specific needs. “There’s a lot of science that goes into this,” Harris said. “You can tailor the experience to fit the situation.
  • ”It’s cost-efficient, providing companies with serious bang for their wellness buck.

Swanson from HealthCare Dimensions and AXIA Health Management says companies need to be progressive when designing wellness programs for older workers and those with more demanding healthcare needs.

Installing a fitness center on site and holding healthcare seminars in the cafeteria are no longer enough. Companies, she said, need to broaden their wellness offerings if they want to have a healthy workforce and stave off skyrocketing healthcare costs.

“Health status is the greatest predictor of future [healthcare] costs,” she said. “If someone doesn’t feel good, they will seek care and care costs money. If someone feels good, they’re going to be active at work and in their community. That’s a good investment. You want people to be productive and you also want to avoid the catastrophic costs that can come with serious health problems.”

The solution, Swanson continued, is to build a comprehensive program that is flexible enough so that it can be tailored to the specific needs of individual employees and integrated enough so that companies can monitor employee enrollment and the overall return on their wellness investment.

“Every person has a different comfort zone,” Swanson said. “But most people don’t want to disclose [health and fitness issues] at the worksite and they don’t want to be working out with their boss or their CEO in a yoga class. That’s why it’s important to provide a variety of activities with a different look and a different feel.”

Swanson recommends giving workers access to a wide array of wellness programs, ranging from physical fitness classes to smoking cessation classes, so that employees can develop a personalized program that meets their unique healthcare needs. Swanson stresses that for a wellness program to be successful it must be readily accessible, easy to use, and fun.

“You want to make [wellness] a cool thing to do,” she said. “Something people love and want to make a part of their lives.”