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Jeffrey Ruby is the founder and CEO of Newtopia Inc., a Toronto-based health care technology consultant. Before founding Newtopia, he was a co-founder and chief operating officer of Cleveland Clinic Canada and Life Screening Centres Inc. Recently, he discussed trends in the workplace wellness and health benefits technology industries with Business Insurance Associate Editor Matt Dunning. Edited excerpts follow.
Q: What do you think of the recent increase in focus among employers on employee “well-being” as opposed to “wellness?”
A: I think it's a really positive step. It indicates a greater awareness on the part of the employers that employee health is much broader and holistic than just physical health. It's not just about their lack of illness or their physical attributes, but rather that all these points are connected. As employers are looking more holistically at their employees from a financial, social and lifestyle well-being perspective, I'd say that increase in focus is only going to bode better for their ability to improve overall employee health on a broader spectrum, as well as drive down their overall health costs.
Q: What do you see as the biggest hurdles facing employers in terms of their efforts to improve employees' health?
A: Making their efforts relevant, engaging and inspiring to their employees. One of the biggest challenges when it comes to employee health programs has been a lack of engagement and a lack of interest, and ultimately pretty lousy outcomes. Also, employers should be moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach and toward much more personalized and bespoke approaches tailored to each individual in their workforce. If employers continue to try to put everyone in the same bucket and assume that one size fits anyone, that would be a giant barrier to improving employee health and reducing health care costs.
I'd say that a lot of the challenges are actually on the providers' side and on the vendors' side, and it's not a lack of goodwill or intention. Many of the so-called “solutions” are not designed to last or to succeed.
There's been a general lack of innovation in the way programs are being offered from a content, engagement and pricing perspective. If you look at the old per member/per month model, which actually offers a disincentive to people who choose to participate — if you look at the silo-based programs that are narrowly focused on nutrition or exercise — a lot of the failure has been in designs that treat an entire employee base as one large group or offering just one corporate wellness program to individuals who are healthy and to those who may be at greater risk. But the needs of each of those constituents are completely different.
Instead, employers need to really tailor programs for the healthy or “worried well,” which will be quite different from programs designed for employees who are at risk, and those programs in turn will be quite different from those designed for employees who have disease and require disease management programs.
What's missing right now is the introduction of a real focus on the at-risk population, with a different approach and strategy because those individuals will have a completely different engagement profile that requires a completely different type of program to be successful.
Q: How is technology changing the way employers design and administer their employee health benefit programs?
A: Certainly from a transparency perspective, I would say technology has provided a much more level playing field for employers and employees, a place where they can understand what's available and what the price points look like. I'd also say that the design and administration of health benefits have become a lot clearer.
From a communication perspective, it offers the opportunity for a much more personalized approach, capable of delivering information to each individual member according to their preferences and needs. That being said, one of the big challenges — even with the technology in place — is making sure that employees know what is available to them in the first place. The presence of the technology alone doesn't change that. It's a matter of leveraging better technology and making sure that communication platforms are available so employees know what's available to them.
Q: What do you see as the next “frontier” for technology in the employee benefits market?
A: My bet is on personalization. I see the benefits industry moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach to the needs of employers and employees and toward a very personalized approach to each employee benefit program they sponsor. The ability to apply predictive analytics, as well as personalized marketing and construction of plans, can help us address the specific needs of the individual at the right point in time.