Editor's Note: This piece was originally published in Brink as part of a series on the future of health in the workplace.
Strong leadership in the 21st century is largely a matter of managing change — how we respond to the challenges of our technology-driven world and make the right decisions to capitalize on today while preparing for the future. Today’s leaders face waves of disruption larger than they have ever experienced. The acceleration of the mobile workforce, chatbots, telemedicine, rapid innovations in artificial intelligence, robotics, advanced algorithms, and 3D printing are becoming commonplace, and this is only the beginning.
To thrive in this new reality, we need the courage to adapt and the will to innovate. Fortunately, many U.S. employers are doing just that in the vital area of healthcare for their people. They are driving innovations that improve outcomes and lower costs. Recently, Mercer released a new study in collaboration with the American Benefits Council. The report focuses on how every leader can derive value from ever-evolving healthcare innovations. This council is the national trade association whose members either sponsor directly or administer retirement and health plans covering more than 100 million Americans.
Leading the Way: Employer Innovations in Health Coverage describes programs developed by a diverse collection of large employers. The goal of the report is to motivate companies to innovate aggressively, align payment with value, incentivize quality care and personalize the employee experience. More than 178 million Americans currently have employer-sponsored health insurance, surpassing Medicare and Medicaid and dwarfing the number of people covered in the individual market.
Indeed, when it comes to recruiting and retaining the best talent for tomorrow’s workforce, health benefits are a key driver of employee engagement, and technology has revolutionized how healthcare is experienced. A recent BRINK article detailed how disruptive digital platforms are potential saviors for healthcare systems that are “fragmented, physician-centric, siloed, [and] disconnected from the holistic needs of patients.”
These digital approaches include enabling patients to access validated and shared healthcare data and information; providing convenient interactions with doctors through online platforms or video conferencing; creating machine learning and artificial intelligence systems to improve the accuracy of diagnoses and customize treatment; and creating virtual systems for patients and healthcare providers that can regularly monitor lifestyle habits and health conditions.
These solutions — and other innovative breakthroughs — will depend on the buy-in of company leaders, and the goal of our Leading the Way study is to bring organizations together to affect real change.
One example underscored the importance of making healthcare more accessible to populations facing barriers to care. In the critical areas of mental and emotional health and risky substance use, access to care can be difficult. Behavioral health problems can be hard to recognize and diagnose, leading to delays in getting proper care. Additionally, mental health professionals are in short supply, and stigma can prevent people from seeking help.
In response, Boeing partnered with its accountable care organizations (ACOs) to integrate behavioral health into primary care. The company placed Employee Assistance Program counselors in onsite occupational health clinics that offer an array of services and are well-utilized — employees can see a counselor without concern that others will know the type of service they are receiving. Additionally, an ACO partner pioneered a model where all primary care physicians could consult in real time with a psychiatrist’s office to discuss concerns or questions arising during a patient’s office visit. Over two years, patient symptoms improved, and they had a higher level of satisfaction with their care.
New innovations continue to gain momentum. One clear takeaway is that it’s imperative to pay for value — and employers often have more options available than they might think to drive affordable healthcare. Options include specialty and local vendors and sharing services with other organizations. One large, high-tech organization analyzed its claims data to look for ways to address high maternity costs. The company found that users of infertility services had a much higher rate of high-cost newborn claims, including multiple births, preterm births and “avoidable C-sections” compared to non-users of infertility services. The organization decided to separate out all infertility services to a specialty vendor focused solely on outcomes, resulting in a great user experience and reduced costs.
We also see the impact of personalizing the health experience in improving the quality of outcomes. For a Fortune 50 retail organization, the power of targeted programs and digital innovation made the difference. The company identified diabetes as a major cost driver in 2014, with spend per diabetic member increasing more than 20 percent between 2013 and 2015. The employer targeted the problem both by assisting members who were currently living with diabetes and by helping to prevent other members from becoming diabetic.
The company partnered with a digital behavior-change vendor and targeted members with metabolic syndrome. Within three months, roughly 3,000 employees applied to be accepted in the program. For diabetes management, the organization partnered with a specialty chronic condition management vendor and initially targeted 7,000 employees. While in the short term, diabetes claims spend per claimant rose 20 percent, after two years this trend shifted dramatically, and the cost curve started to bend, with increases dropping to 5 percent. Meanwhile, obesity claims spend per claimant actually decreased 16 percent.
Those are only a sampling of the innovative case studies contained in the American Benefits Council/Mercer report. Other organizations that allowed their stories to be told include Activision Blizzard, ARLP, AT&T, BorgWarner, Intel, KBR Inc., NRECA, PepsiCo, Portico Benefit Services, Princeton University, and Walgreens. These accounts are an inspiration, and they prove how successful employers can be better leaders by fearlessly embracing innovation — to manage cost, drive better quality and outcomes, and improve workforce health and productivity.