The Digital Health Coaching Movement – Scalable Programs Help Employers Identify and Address Those at Risk

Companies large and small have come to realize that the benefits of a healthy workforce -“ increased productivity, reduced absenteeism, decreased health care utilization and costs -“ remain vital to their overall success and profit margin. But many organizations continue to struggle with finding programs that can engage their employees, are effective, can scale to their entire population and that do not require excessive time, energy and money to deliver.

To this end, many employers have focused on innovative technologies and strategies that concentrate sharply on wellness and prevention -“ with the goal of creating a culture of health across entire employee populations.

One solution that is gaining momentum is digital health coaching -“ web-based programs that emulate a face-to-face or phone consultation with a live coach. These programs are designed to help people transform unhealthy behaviors like smoking, weight gain and physical inactivity into long-term, healthy lifestyle behaviors. Evidence demonstrates that if organizations can reach those employees at risk for a host of preventable and costly illnesses -“ such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity -“ before onset, they will create a healthier, more productive workforce and save considerable health care expenditures along the way.

These programs, which are available 24/7 via the web, simulate a live health coaching or counseling session. Often drawing upon the expertise of hundreds of health care professionals -“ physicians, psychologists, nutritionists, trainers, and behavioral scientists -“ the programs ask questions and then deliver a unique, personalized plan for each individual that follows proven clinical guidelines, while addressing personal history, goals, emotional triggers, barriers, beliefs, and current stage of change.

The coaching programs span wellness and prevention, behavioral health, and disease management, providing a holistic approach and delivering a unique, personalized plan along with supporting tools and resources for each individual -“ with consistent high-quality coaching every time.

Two digital health coaching programs at our company, HealthMedia, are designed to help lower cardiovascular disease risk for employee populations by improving cholesterol and blood pressure levels. They help participants achieve recommended cholesterol and blood pressure ranges by promoting improved medication adherence, more effective working relationships with health care providers, better weight control, improved nutrition habits, and increased physical activity levels. They join the growing suite programs designed to help employers reduce overall prevalence rates of modifiable health risk factors, decrease health care costs, and boost productivity. Employers now have access to the first cost-effective, proven digital health coaching system that combats all six of the leading modifiable risk factors for heart disease identified by the American Heart Association: smoking, obesity, physical inactivity, high blood pressure, elevated blood cholesterol, and diabetes (Type 2).

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is one of the most preventable diseases and among the most widespread and costly health problems in the US. High blood pressure and high cholesterol are major risk factors for heart disease, and the American Heart Association estimates the direct and indirect costs of heart disease to be more than $304 billion a year in the U.S. Digital health coaching programs help people control and prevent high blood pressure and high cholesterol -“ which affect 31 percent of U.S. adults, and 16 percent of U.S. adults, respectively, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

These national statistics do not reflect the prevalence and cost of those “at risk” for high blood pressure and cholesterol. HealthMedia outcomes data provide new insights into the population at risk for high blood pressure and cholesterol. While 20 percent of people have reported high cholesterol, another 33 percent have reported borderline high cholesterol levels, which are often undetected. Additionally, 33 percent of people have reported high blood pressure, but more than 50 percent have reported elevated blood pressure (pre-hypertension) which, if left alone, can escalate into high blood pressure.

For employers, this large and unaddressed group poses a significant opportunity for cost avoidance through prevention. For instance, HealthMedia customer claims data show that direct medical costs are an average of 46 percent higher for those with high cholesterol and 64 percent higher for those with high blood pressure. Average indirect costs due to lost productivity or absenteeism are estimated to be 46 percent higher for high blood pressure and 33 percent higher for high cholesterol.

This is just one example of why employers must shift their focus to wellness and prevention by identifying and addressing those at risk for issues and conditions that will result in higher costs down the road. Employers who are offering digital health coaching are reaching a greater percentage of their population and achieving measurable outcomes -“saving the high-touch, traditional coaching for those who need it most.

Steve Bennett is the director of Disease Management Strategy at HealthMedia in Ann Arbor, Mich., a Johnson & Johnson company that offers a web-based digital health coaching solution to employers and health plans. He can be reached a [email protected].