10 steps to engage patients in mobile, online health and wellness platforms

Payer or provider, there's no question that the trend toward wellness and preventative care will continue--it was a hot topic and recurring theme at America's Health Insurance Plans' 2012 Institute in Salt Lake City last week.

The motivation on the part of payers is clear: Drive down the cost of care by keeping the population as healthy as possible. So what motivates patients to participate?

One answer: Online and mobile platforms that borrow tactics from social media and gaming. But it's more complicated than it sounds. You can build the platform. But that doesn't mean anyone will actually use it.

Social media and other platforms must be part of an organization's DNA in order to succeed, said Bryce Willians, director of health and wellness at Blue Shield of California (pictured).

Speaking on a panel about social engagement, he offered several other pieces of advice for engaging members and patients in their own health:

1. Don't be academic. Rather than preaching, create a dialogue with employees, members and patients about the topics that really matter, offering a "field guide of health."

2. Make it fun. This one might seem like a no-brainer, but the bottom line is most folks love games--and hate dieting. But there's no mutual exclusivity between enjoying yourself and being healthy, Williams said.

3. Don't build walled gardens. Two of Healthways' mobile and online platforms, Shape up Shield and MeYou Health, are open to anyone who wants to participate; not just Healthways members. Participants can build their own teams of people they know. That's much more enticing than interactions with strangers. As personal connections increase so does engagement, Williams said.

4. Use trusted recruiters. New adopters are most likely to join when recruited by friends a co-workers--not their insurance company.

5. Encourage healthy competition. Create platforms that allow teams--such as a group of co-workers--track goals such as steps per day. Give them a way to support each other and offer words of encouragement … or talk trash, if they like.

6. Create a clear objective. Great games reward progression from novice to mastery, Williams said.

7. Don't rely on financial and other extrinsic incentives. Although those may entice people to check out the platform, it won't keep them there. For most people, health is not its own reward. Motivations? High school reunions, weddings, or "even just being naked," Williams said.

8. Change it up. At first, teams participating in a steps per day challenge had to average about 10,000 steps a day to win. Then the ante was upped: Now they need an average of 18,000 a day to win.

9. Learn from the winners. Create focus groups with top performing teams to get feedback. Tweak your program based not on what you think users want, but what they tell you they want.

10. Measure it. Track results to see what's working and what's not. Online platforms can get stale quickly; be prepared to make changes based on feedback and data.

So, are these kinds of tool more engaging than static content, health assessments and chirpy dieticians? "The answer seems to be yes," Williams said.

The Shape up Shield program has engagement rates of about 80 to 90 percent, with about 60 percent of participants completing challenges daily. The site has an "alumni" retention rate of 60 percent, and also enjoys strong "newbie adoption," Williams said.

One in five participated in wellness programs in 2008, and that figure rose to four in five in 2011. One in three patients were hypertensive--that's dropped to one in 10. And smoking is down by half, from 12 percent to 6 percent, Williams said.

Although financial return on investment is difficult to show, Williams said the organization has run the numbers several different ways and estimates an average annual cost saving of $4.7 million--a three to one ROI.