digital health vendors

How Employers Can Benefit from the Digital Health Explosion

March 01, 2021

Ryan Olmstead, MPH, wrote this blog.

If I’d only stuffed a dollar in a jar every time I heard of a new digital health vendor selling direct to employers, I probably would’ve saved enough to move that Peloton Bike and membership off of my wish list.  That’s because digital health has exploded over the last decade, injecting competition into a failing health care marketplace and promising a better member experience.  But the mega growth in vendors has also overwhelmed employers and raised questions on whether each solution can truly deliver value.

Benefits consultants have helped their clients navigate this growing space.  Coalition initiatives, like Business Group on Health’s Health Innovation Forum and Silicon Valley Employers Forum Innovation Lab, also play a vital role by educating employers and offering them pilot opportunities.  Recently, World 50, a platform for business leaders, acknowledged the burgeoning popularity of these direct-to-employer digital health solutions by acquiring Employer Health Innovation Roundtable, another organization that helps employers source new health solutions.

Here at Catalyst for Payment Reform, we recently brought a group of purchasers together to strategize how to navigate this space.  Using our Purchaser Collaborative model and with the help of Michael Perlmutter, a subject matter expert from Willis Towers Watson, we strategized how to help employers find ways to increase member adoption of high-value programs, including the plethora of digital health solutions.  During our monthly meetings, a number of lessons emerged on how employers can maximize uptake of a solution.

The process to maximize member uptake begins well before the go-live.  To be successful, employers must conduct strategic planning upfront, including using internal and external data to understand employee preferences.  Smart employers put themselves into their employees’ shoes by simulating employees’ journeys through the program, grouping employees into various personas based on demographics.

Parallel to the strategic planning, the employer needs to comprehensively evaluate the solutions vying for its business.  How would the vendor clinically manage the employer’s participants and what are the expected outcomes?  What is the program’s return on investment and how does it calculate cost savings?  Have independent studies been conducted to validate the clinical and financial results?  Lastly, do the program’s operations demonstrate strong member uptake and ongoing engagement?  What program designs – in the form of member incentives or disincentives – are available?

After settling on any one or multiple solutions, employers need a process to monitor the program. The employer should be open to tweaking the design and incentives and should also have a “point of no return” to discontinue the program if it’s not achieving its objectives.

Our Purchaser Collaborative meetings delved into all of these steps, scrutinizing every opportunity for optimization. Finally, it was time to round out the effort. CPR invited employers to present their own experiences with solutions or clinical areas of interest to the Collaborative and other employers.  This final event day was made possible through sponsorship from Peterson Center on Healthcare, OptumRx, Quantum Health, and Renalogic.

Here are a few highlights from the employer presentations:

  • A purchaser presenting on its navigation solution found value evaluating the vendor operationally through a site-visit. During the visit, the purchaser could train the vendor’s representatives on its company culture and offerings and conduct interviews with the care guides.
  • When trying to engage its population in a diabetes reversal and management program, one purchaser learned that employees suspected targeted communications were spam. This led the purchaser to reconsider its communication strategy. This purchaser also found success using real-life examples to encourage new employees to enroll.
  • A third purchaser, who recently implemented a chronic kidney disease prevention and management program, recruited a few members with a history of high-cost claims, knowing they would immediately benefit from the program’s clinical aspects. This targeted recruitment helped deliver financial savings to the employer.
  • Finally, another purchaser has employees sign an annual pledge to become familiar with a component of its benefits program. This purchaser also works with managers “on the ground” at its various locations to champion its behavioral health benefit among its workforce.

The digital health explosion has left many employers wondering how to prioritize which bright, shiny new solution to chase, how to discern which solutions are really fool’s gold, and how to get the most from an existing program.

If you’re a purchaser trying to navigate this space, I want to leave you with three recommendations.  First, lay the foundation through careful upfront planning – solutions that are not matched to employees’ true needs and preferences will never be successful.  Second, get creative. No matter how you slice it, getting strong utilization rates is hard.  Use a variety of modes and messages to resonate with your employees, personalize the messages you send out, use personal stories and testimonials whenever possible, or use incentives and disincentives to motivate uptake.  Third, ask questions.  Is the program really an ‘oldie but goodie’ or is it just old and unpopular?  Evaluation is key when it comes to deciding whether to maximize an existing program or search for a new solution.

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