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6 Big Benefits Trends to Watch This Year

By Phat Chiem | January 3, 2018 | Rally Health

Are you offering telemedicine and chatbots yet? Student loan help? Virtual-reality-powered meditation in the office?

In this next year, you’ll be hearing a lot about how technology, financial fitness, and better patient experiences are transforming the benefits and health care landscape.

According to the new Global Benefits Attitudes survey by Willis Towers Watson, only one-third of employees believe their overall benefits package offers enough choice and flexibility.

Clearly, we can do more to understand the specific needs of our workforces. A big part of that feedback loop is staying abreast of new technology and solutions that can help your employees be healthier, more engaged, and more satisfied.

Here are six big trends to watch closely this year:

Telemedicine and Chatbots

With health care costs rising and employees taking on more of their own medical expenses, the time is ripe for telemedicine services. But utilization is still low at most companies — as low as 3 percent of employees. That’s why more employers are focusing on delivering digital services for specific areas, such as mental health.

The Veterans Health Administration cut the number of hospitalizations for mental health issues by an extraordinary 40 percent after implementing a telemedicine solution, and by 25 to 30 percent for patients with heart ailments. The VHA estimated that it saved $6,500 for each patient using the telemedicine program, representing $1 billion in annual savings in 2012, when these figures were last tallied.

Here’s another notable example: In 2015, St. Louis-based Mercy Health opened its Virtual Care Center, “a hospital without beds,” that’s staffed by 300 doctors and nurses who are solely dedicated to providing telemedicine for intensive care units, emergency rooms, and smaller hospitals. They spend their days in front of screens instead of making rounds.

The results have been astounding: a 35 to 40 percent reduction in the length of hospital stays and ICU mortality rates, and savings of $40 million.

Imagine the cost reductions you might be able to achieve if you leverage this kind of technology, even on a smaller scale. You’d also be providing more convenient health care for your population.

Besides behavioral health, telemedicine is expanding into other specialties such as dermatology, medication management, and nutrition and weight consultation.

“A nutritionist had a patient take their cellphone … and walk them through their refrigerator to help plan meals,” recalled a senior health research associate for the digital health organization AHIP.

For a growing number of companies, chatbots also make it easier to access health services. Powered by artificial intelligence, these platforms can walk (er, talk) employees through filing a health claim, setting up a doctor’s visit, or answering questions about insurance plans — all without human intervention and around the clock.

Wearables

The wearables trend is heating up again. Only this time, merely counting steps with a wearable device will seem as quaint as, well, telling time with a watch.

The next generation of wearables is going way beyond measuring your heart rate or tracking your sleep habits. In fact, the most promising devices will be health-focused wearables that can gather clinical-grade patient data and offer doctor-driven diagnoses.

Think futuristic devices like body-worn patches, electronic tattoos, or sweat sensors. Wearable 2.0 devices will be able to measure glucose levels without ever drawing a drop of blood, take accurate biometric readers from a device that fits in your ear, detect breast cancer through an implant worn in a bra, and end the use of antidepressants with a headband, among other potential futuristic functionalities.

With the greater functionality, accuracy, and real-time data crunching offered by these “clinical wearables,” and because employees may be interested in having this information, employers should be thinking about how they can incorporate these devices into their health programs.

Virtual Reality

Just as telemedicine promises anywhere, anytime access to health care, virtual reality is ripe with possibilities — but in more immersive ways.

VR is already changing health care. Surgeons are donning VR headsets to scope out complicated surgeries. Patients with pain or trauma are calming themselves in VR environments. And stroke victims are learning to walk again with the help of VR.

For employers, VR is still very much an emerging technology, but it’s gaining momentum. Companies are looking into at-desk meditation experiences that can help workers regain their focus. Aimed at cubicle dwellers, the Australian startup Relax VR offers an iPhone and Android app that relieves occupational stress by transporting users to the “world’s most serene locations.”

VR can also turn a boring workout into a thrilling game. Cambridge, Massachusetts-based VirZOOM Inc. transforms bike machines into VR environments that give users the experience of being professional cyclists, horse-herding cowboys, and Formula 1 drivers.

Rally Health is also experimenting with VR solutions that can create the “Clinic of the Future,” In collaboration with UnitedHealth Group and Cisco. Using immersive environments and digitally connected doctors, we imagine the clinic coming to you rather than the other way around. One piece of that is a VR-connected exercise bike that would put users in the middle of a nail-biting peloton race through the French Alps.

Financial Wellness

Money troubles don’t make for productive workers. Employees with financial stress are five times more likely to be distracted by their finances at work, twice as likely to miss work because of personal financial issues, and more likely to cite health issues caused by their money worries, says PwC in its 2017 report. No wonder 44 percent of companies now consider financial wellness programs a “must have” benefit in order to stay competitive.

Employers aren’t satisfied with just improving financial literacy. They’re taking concrete steps to curb financial burdens. Instead of talking endlessly about retirement, companies are automatically enrolling workers and then bumping their savings rates year after year. They’re contributing to health savings accounts. They’re tackling huge student debt burdens with repayment assistance.

And no longer is retirement the main financial focus. There’s a growing awareness that personal finances can affect employee health long before the gold watch arrives. For example, some companies are offering travel stipends or setting up “vacation savings accounts” to make it easier for employees to unplug.

Concierge Services

For the best medicine that money can buy, the wealthy have been turning to concierge practices. That’s where patients pay top dollar — as much as $40,000 a year — for 24-hour, white-glove attention from doctors and specialists.

Luckily, there’s a much more affordable model called direct primary care (DPC). Here, workers or their employer pony up a monthly retainer fee for office visits and consultations, bypassing insurance carriers. These plans cost an average of $77 per patient per month.

The key difference with DPC is the much lower patient-to-doctor ratio, sometimes 70 percent lower than in the insured fee-for-service model. This allows doctors to lavish attention and develop relationships with patients.

There are a couple of big hitches, though. One is the shortage of primary care doctors working under this model. The other is that employees can’t contribute to an HSA and a DPC plan at the same time, under current IRS rules, and employers that offer high-deductible plans with HSAs may not offer DPC as a benefit.

Still, concierge medicine could be the future of care, and your population may be asking for it soon. Keep an eye out for a DPC solution that could work for your employees.

Automation

For benefits leaders, automation can improve workflows, cut delivery time, and reduce paperwork and errors.

Marketing and promotions are prime areas for automation. Marketing automation software can help solve the problem of clearly communicating the availability and benefits of programs that you’ve so carefully selected and purchased. For most benefits teams, this means improving the way you’re sending email announcements and newsletters with better targeting, analytics, and personalization.

Other tasks that are no-brainers for streamlining include applicant tracking and onboarding, time and attendance, records management and reporting, benefits enrollment, and payroll.

But as Rally’s Rhett Woods explains in BenefitsPro, employers would be smart to find configurable technologies that meet their unique HR needs, rather than trying to spend a lot of time and money customizing their own solution.

For example, you could implement a Slack channel specifically for employees seeking to learn more about their company benefits rather than creating your own chat solution or buying expensive enterprise software.

You could use an email marketing service like PoliteMail to apply marketing automation techniques, like personalizing email content, right inside Microsoft Outlook. This way you don’t have to spend a lot of time creating your own email solution.

Here’s another pro tip: If your software vendors don’t talk nicely to each other, see if you can mesh the data together with a workflow automation service like Zapier before going out and sourcing an expensive solution.

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Phat Chiem
Rally Health