Tech can help people get healthy, but can it make them want to?

It's seems funny to write a column this week about anything other than the Supreme Court's pending decision on healthcare reform. But we'll find out what the Justices have to say one way or the other tomorrow morning. And no matter what the Court decides about individual mandates and severability and whether a penalty is a fee or a tax, the day after tomorrow we'll still face the same fundamental problem we face today: Healthcare is too damn expensive.

Of course, that was one of the major themes at last week's America's Health Insurance Plans 2012 Institute in Salt Lake City--insurers have a special interest in keeping the cost of healthcare down, since under the current payment model they're the only ones with any real incentive to do so. (And don't get me started on high-deductible health plans: The vast majority of patients do not care one whit how much a procedure costs, even if they're paying for a chunk of it out of their own pocket.)

Many of the sessions I attended focused on how to use technology and data analytics--from home health monitoring to online and mobile health and wellness platforms--to not only make people healthier, but also reduce the spiraling costs of healthcare.

Remote healthcare technologies to keep people out of costly acute and long-term care settings? Check.

Mobile apps that help patients track health stats such as weight or glucose readings, allowing caregivers to intervene before the patient reaches crisis mode and ends up in the ER? Check.  

Online sites that use social media and gaming concepts to encourage healthy lifestyles? Check.

Healthy, engaged patients who are motivated to eat less and move more, who monitor their chronic conditions faithfully and report their progress--honestly--to their physicians?

Yeah, not so much.

The healthcare industry, the government, app developers and wellness companies are creating so many interesting programs and platforms to engage patients in their own health.

But how do we get people to actually use them?

And how, in particular, do we get the folks who are not already engaged in their health to participate? Is it even possible to reach the most at-risk population, or are they simply a lost cause?

I caught up with Bryce Williams, director of health and wellness at Blue Shield of California, after he spoke on a panel discussion about healthcare social engagement and asked him that question.

"I don't believe it's a lost cause," he told me. "You need to enable your champions, but you can't stop with them."

Healthy people don't only associate with healthy people, he said. The key is to connect people at different levels health and give them social platforms where they can interact in a non-judgmental way around improving their health.

His company's platforms (See "10 steps to engage patients in mobile, online health and wellness platforms" for more info) are open to anyone who signs up for that very reason. Allowing people to use your online tools and services, regardless of whether or not they are your patient or member or employee, gives you access to the kind of support you simply can't offer in a walled garden.

"The great thing about wellness is that all the things we talk about--not smoking, eating better, getting physically active--helps everybody," Williams said. "A rising tide lifts all boats."

I want to hear what you think: What can we do to get the least active, least motivated patients engaged? Is that even possible? Can social media platforms help someone who's morbidly obese lose the weight? Can a text message save a life? Is there an app that can make people care about their health?

Because it really doesn't matter what the Supreme Court says tomorrow. It's going to take more than healthcare reform to get America healthier and to get healthcare costs under control. - Gienna

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