Wellness Programs Go High Tech

Wellness Programs Go High Tech

Wellness programs have come a long way. The most cutting-edge ones no longer revolve around gym discounts and smoking-cessation seminars in the cafeteria. If companies want to have a healthy workforce and to stave off skyrocketing healthcare costs, they need to broaden their wellness offerings, according to Mary Swanson, founder and CEO of HealthCare Dimensions and the executive vice chairman of AXIA Health Management.

Technology is playing a key role in the development of sophisticated new programs that meet varied needs. "You need to provide a model that lets employees set their own goals," says Swanson, who has helped implement wellness programs for workers aged 50-plus. "If they can't customize their own goals, it won't work. One size does not fit all."

Swanson and other wellness specialists recommend a comprehensive program --flexible enough to be tailored to individual employees and integrated enough so that companies can monitor employee enrollment and the overall return on their wellness investment.

One Company's High Tech Solutions

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

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

"Being a high tech company, we wanted to take a high tech approach to wellness," says 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 now can keep track of the top 10 prescription drugs its employees use and the top 10 health issues affecting its workforce. With that data, EMC can quickly develop wellness programs and workshops that meet workers' most pressing needs.

Experts say many 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.

Telephonic Healthcare Counseling

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

"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," Harris says. "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 has been designing corporate wellness programs for three decades and says telephonic counseling is particularly beneficial for high-risk and older workers. Employees like its convenience and privacy, and employers report it is cost-effective.

A Progressive Approach

Wellness specialists have learned that it takes considerable effort to make wellness programs truly user-friendly.

"Every person has a different comfort zone," Swanson says. "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."