Harnessing the Power of Data Analytics to Maximize Employee Benefits

By Antonio Legorreta, M.D., MPH | HR News

As data analytics continue to evolve, they promise to play key roles in shaping employee benefits and engaging employees in taking steps toward better health. In fact, data can be leveraged to inform program design, provide opportunities for customization, drive engagement and measure success. This matter because improved workplace health and wellness programs make positive impacts on the health of the workforce and the organization’s bottom line.

Designing Effective Health and Well-being Programs

Data analytics allow employers to understand both the current health of their unique workforce and the biggest drivers of benefits costs. Gaining these insights can help organizations develop targeted initiatives and programming to address priority issues. By analyzing health care claims, reviewing biometric screening results, developing aggregate personal health profiles and conducting health risk assessments, it’s possible to uncover the most prevalent health conditions among employees, as well as the costliest.

For example, if the analysis reveals that chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes are contributing to higher costs, adding a chronic care component to the wellness program can help employees access the resources they need to improve their health and manage their care. And if a population includes a large number of smokers, adding a tobacco cessation program could be extremely helpful. Quitting tobacco has near-immediate positive health effects that increase the longer people stay tobacco-free.

Additionally, reviewing incentives data can further contribute to the larger picture of what is and is not effective in motivating employees to participate in programs and take actions to improve their health. If, for instance, dta show that offering employees a health savings account contribution to visit a primary care provider is not making an impact, an organization can use that information to adapt its approach. A solution could be increasing the amount offered or incentivizing some other beneficial activity. Making such tweaks based on an analysis of data can ensure time and money are not wasted and that efforts are directed toward the most effective initiatives.

Last, surveying employees about their needs and goals can also generate helpful data to guide program development. If employees report being stressed about matters outside the workplace, introducing an employee assistance program (EAP) can provide welcome support. For organizations with employees looking for extra guidance on budgeting or saving for retirement, a financial wellness component can add value.

Driving Sustained Engagement

Following program design, data analytics remain important for driving ongoing engagement in workplace health and well-being programs. A key insight that can be gleaned from data is the identity of employees who are at risk. This enables the organization to provide personalized communications to movivate those employees to seek out interventions to improve their health and plug gaps in care.

Not only can data customize messages, it can also help guide the delivery of messages via the communication channels each employee prefers. This lets the employer connect with employees through multiple touch points. For example, a 2016 Health Advocate study found that individuals may prefer texts or emails for a reminder to get up and walk, but a phone call about remembering to speak with a counselor through their EAP was more likely to drive higher engagement.

Creating a streamlined, data-driven, automated web and mobile engagement platform can be effective for sending voice, text and email reminders to encourage employees to use the components of the wellness program that best meet their needs. The data should come from both employees and the employer, and biometric screening results, claims and eligibility should be included. Action alerts can address a range of things, from filling a prescription to getting a diabetes test and sticking with a walking goal.

Likewise, building an online hub for all the related services an employer offers gives employees access to a one-stop engagement portal for accessing services.

Enhancing proactive alerts with meaningful information about resources like wellness coaching, service pricing and clinical decision support improves employees’ total well-being by driving them to appropriate services. Surveys suggest this can result in higher engagement, better health decision-making and lower medical costs.

According to a 2012 Towers Watson/National Business Group on Health survey of employers, organizations that successfully lowered their health care cost trends were twice as likely as their counterparts to utilize targeted messaging to drive employees to tools that can improve their health, including benefit decision support, clinical decision support and promoting access to a primary care doctor.

Further supporting this approach are findings from a 2018 Health Advocate analysis of 13 large employers who incorporated data into their integrated health and well-being programs. Across the study group, more than 26,000 employees were identified as being at risk for health problems based on claims data, biometric screening and lab results, and self-reported information. Those people received personalized communications in the form of letters, emails and phone calls, encouraging them to participate in nurse-led coaching sessions. These efforts yielded millions of dollars in savings, including a 10.3% reduction in medical costs among the highest risk employees and a 5-to-1 return on investment.

Ensuring and Measuring Success

Following the initial launch and implementation of a health and wellness initiative, it is critical to begin analyzing data at regular intervals to assess the program’s effectiveness. Using the initial aggregate data as a baseline makes it possible to see year-over-year improvements to employee health, finances, productivity and more. An annual review of the data also provides a great opportunity to make necessary changes to health and wellness programs to better address the evolving needs of the workforce and continue to see the benefits.

Data can strengthen effective programs for individuals as well as the workforce as a whole. For example, biometric screening results inform and empower employees to make positive behavior changes. A series of studies from Health Advocate demonstrated that new diagnoses and prescriptions for employees who showed signs of being at risk for chronic conditions like high blood pressure and high cholesterol increased within one month of when the employees participated in biometric screenings. These employees also showed improved results when screened one year later. When an organization has information like this, it can make adjustments to benefits and wellness programs to ensure more employees participate in screenings and further realize the value of that.

Additionally, HR professionals can review dashboards of aggregate data from across their covered population to identify and address trends, both in regards to the health of their workforce and to the success of wellness initiatives. If the data indicate an uptick of avoidable ER visits, HR can work with their partners to create a communications campaign to drive people to urgent care when appropriate. Reviewing data about utilization and outcomes can also give employers the ability to see how services are performing and to redesign those that are underperforming, thereby improving the value and ROI of all services.

PMPY = per-member-per year
The chart comes from a report on the study Health Advocate conducted of 40 large employers who use data analysis for their integrated helath and wellness programs.

A recent Health Advocate study demonstrated how it is possible to compound the power of data by both incorporating it into a benefits program and leveraging the insights generated to measure success. A key finding is summarized in the accompanying chart.

Researchers looked at 40 large employers who use data analysis for their integrated health and wellness programs. When compared to their counterparts in the market as a whole, employees at the studied organizations demonstrated higher levels of engagement, leading to significant savings and improved clinical outcomes.  For example, employees who received targeted outreach with information about how to improve their health experienced a 13 percent decreased in cost trend. This compared to a 4 percent increase across the market as a whole.

By incorporating data analytics throughout the lifecycle of a health and wellness program, from inception through implementation and evaluation, it is possible to create a more personalized offering that more effectively engages employees and promotes positive behavior change. Utilizing data can, in this way, help ensure success of health and wellness programs, which results in improved health for employees and reduced costs for the organization.

Antonio Legorreta, MD, MPH, is the managing director of Health Advocate’s engage2Health division. He is also an adjunct professor at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health and a senior natural scientist at RAND.