Wellness incentives save UnitedHealth millions

The U.S healthcare system could prevent 80 percent of all heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes and up to 40 percent of all cancer by getting people to eat better, exercise more and stop smoking. Such statistics explain why payers are putting more focus on health and wellness initiatives.

The health and wellness opportunity grows when looking at the workplace, where people spend most of their time. Doing just that, UnitedHealthcare reaped about $107 million in healthcare cost savings in only the first 36 months of implementing its internal health incentives program, Robyn Harmon (pictured), health strategies consultant at the Minneapolis-based insurer, told FierceHealthPayer.

In this exclusive interview, Harmon discusses how UnitedHealth is using incentives to encourage employees and members to live healthier lives, and what it takes to really engage people in their health.

FierceHealthPayer: How does UnitedHealthcare incentivize consumers to live a healthier lifestyle?

Robyn Harmon: When it comes to consumers, we have various programs available. We have a program where we provide up to $175 in gift cards to members for being engaged in their health, by doing things like completing a health assessment, completing online health programs and engaging with a telephonic health coach.

We also have a program with small businesses. We provide them with a free biometric screening kit. They also have access to telephonic wellness coaches for free and we give a gym reimbursement of up to $240 per year for going to the gym a certain number of times per month.

FierceHealthPayer: What does UnitedHealthcare's internal incentive program entail?

Harmon: It's an annual program where we complete a health assessment and then see a physician for our annual screenings--both biometric screenings and preventative screenings. From there, they're looking for us to meet specific biometric goals and if we don't, we have lots of programs to participate in--from telephonic wellness coaching to Weight Watchers, to the diabetes prevention program and all of our clinical programs. For most folks who meet the objectives, they are then rewarded with a health premium discount.

We've seen both outstanding participation as well as outcomes. For example, in the first 24 months of the program, we had 82 percent of our employees earn points. They made improvements on all of the quality measures over a three-year timespan.

We found 7,200 employees who were at risk for diabetes who didn't know that, and were able to provide different programs for them. We also had 44 percent of employees who were overweight engaged in health coaching programs. In the following year we found that they lost an average of 4.5 percent of their weight.

FierceHealthPayer: We've seen a few studies suggesting that consumer engagement is key to improving health and wellness. What strategies really get consumers to adopt healthy behaviors or change behaviors?

Robyn Harmon: A lot of different pieces play into consumers wanting to be engaged in their health. A lot of it can be readiness to be engaged, to even know they have something they can improve upon. A lot of it can be around their environment; the work environment is a great example of where you spend your time.

A big piece that plays into that is the top-down support--the leadership saying, 'we support having the flexibility to take time during the work day to go and exercise or to leave a little early if necessary.'

It's also personalizing the approach--you need to meet people where they are. Having a variety of programs can really help with that, so folks don't feel like they have to fit into a certain peg.

Finally, it's got to be easy and fun--having that socialization. Once that starts to happen, and people engage in their health, you typically find they start to feel better overall and it becomes contagious. They want to share it with others and they want others to be part of their social network, where they're supporting each other and all making these great advancements.

FierceHealthPayer: How do social media and health IT play into these efforts?

Harmon: A lot of research looks at things like Facebook and how we can influence each other in a positive or negative direction based on how we respond to something.

Health improvement is the same way. When you think about social networks and how even though I may not necessarily see a person every day, we can influence each other by the stories that we share or inviting each other all the way across the country to take an evening walk.

It's another way of connecting and it's instantaneous. We can easily pick up our phone and see where we are for the day--have I accomplished what I wanted to do today? And knowing that I opened it up to a network that can also see that, people can really jump in and start to rally me on.

FierceHealthPayer: How do UnitedHealthcare's incentive programs build stronger relationships with consumers?

Harmon: It's something that consumers want. They want us to support them in our healthy habits. So we find ways to bring a lot of different opportunities to them and meet them where it's a win-win for everybody. Again, it's about making it easy, making it fun, making it accessible for wherever they are in their daily lives.

For UnitedHealthcare, our role is really about helping our members live healthier lives. Whatever we can do to support our members and help them live healthier lives, that's where we want to invest our time.

Editor's Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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