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Is Coronavirus a Tipping Point for Digital Health on Demand?

As the coronavirus crisis affects our societies and organizations — prompting critical decisions about business shut-downs, the cancellation of public and corporate events, working from home and greater support for employees — a very practical question arises. Could this be the tipping point for digital health, especially for such recent innovations as telehealth, which allows us to consult directly with health care providers via computer or mobile device? 

With social distancing and shelter-in-place now all too familiar concepts, telehealth offerings could well be effective tools in managing the impact of the virus. They can aid in preventing infected patients and people with other health issues from congregating and possibly contracting or passing on the virus. 

Significantly, telehealth has never been more widely available, if underutilized. Recent U.S. findings from the National Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Plans show that while telehealth is a ubiquitous offering among employers, utilization rates remain low, growing slowly from 8% in 2018 to 9% in 2019. 

That is very likely to change, now that the coronavirus pandemic is a primary focus of societal and business concern. Importantly, telemedicine might be invaluable for behavioral health — especially if people are quarantined for many weeks and anxiety and depression mount. 

Is this a new era of telemedicine and virtual mental health counseling, along with smart apps and sensors to track medications, AI to diagnose medical conditions or augmented reality to assist with pain and stress management? What role do employers play in providing digital health solutions? What do workers want, need and expect? And how can digital health offerings help employers to attract talent and achieve better health outcomes for their people? 

To explore these questions, Mercer Marsh Benefits, Mercer and Oliver Wyman conducted a study that examines digital health innovation and the future of health care in the context of employee attitudes and work cultures. 

For enterprises, understanding what attracts workers to “health on demand” — and what worries them about it — can mean the difference between leaping ahead or lagging behind in building the energized workforce that will drive sustainable growth and bright futures. The study, which was completed in June 2019, polled 16,564 workers and 1,300 senior decision-makers from seven mature markets (U.S., U.K., Canada, Italy, France, Netherlands and Singapore) and six growth markets (Brazil, China, Colombia, India, Indonesia and Mexico). 

Among the key findings is the strong business case for digital health, which, while apparent last year, is even more compelling now. Employers responding to the survey indicated that robust health and well-being programs — enhanced with digital health solutions — are seen as key to attracting and maintaining talent in a competitive labor market, and results suggested that corporate investment in workforce health would grow over the next five years. 

Now it seems that digital health solutions may also be important purely from a risk-management perspective. They can help to protect against talent shortages and absenteeism due to infectious disease, sickness or injury that can leave companies without the people to get the job done.  

Horizons of Digital Health

Overall, 40% of employers believe that sponsoring or promoting digital health solutions will aid in employee retention, while one-quarter of surveyed workers say they are more likely to remain with an employer who offers digital solutions. The 36% of employees who say it makes no difference may well change their tune as the coronavirus era affects working life. Health is a top-of-mind item for everyone right now; as a result, employees may be more engaged and more willing to change their health behaviors than they normally are. In the U.S. alone, 68% of surveyed employers are likely to invest more in digital health in the next five years — and that number may be rising quickly in today’s climate.

But the horizons of digital health include clouds of complexity that can’t be overlooked. The Health on Demand research shows that workers are looking for improved access to high-quality health care that is personal, convenient, affordable and secure — but they recognize the potential downsides. They have concerns about risks associated with digital health care and AI, especially data protection and privacy. 

Amongst the coronavirus crisis, it is important for business leaders to look beyond the moment at an empowered future of better health on demand.

It is important to recognize that while some employees will be more receptive than others to digital health, very few are truly opposed to it. An analysis shows that workers can be divided into four distinct segments based upon their attitudes to health innovations, their confidence in health solutions sponsored by employers and their likelihood of staying with an employer offering these solutions. Call them the Sign Me Up, Impress Me, Get Me Comfortable, and Not for Me segments.

Sign Me Up, for example, comprises 37% of U.S. workers and is dominated by millennials, who are tech-savvy, more willing to try digital health innovations and less likely to leave employers who offer them. The Impress Me cohort, at 19%, is educated yet not loyal; they are less likely to stay due to digital health offerings yet more willing to try them — but not through their employer. 

The largest segment, at 40%, is the Get Me Comfortable group, who skew to Generation X. While they are willing to try digital health solutions and are less likely to leave employers who offer them, they are less confident in employer-sponsored solutions. But only 5% of U.S. workers, those in the Not for Me category — who tend to be older, tech-skeptic employees — are truly unwilling to try digital health. 

A Pro-Health Culture

Overall, there is high demand for a pro-health culture. Investments in digital health tools can help demonstrate that employers value health and well-being. This dovetails with the interests of workers, many of whom want their company to create healthy environments. 

In addition, employers recognize that there are barriers to health that are tough to get around, like affordable housing and transportation. Practically speaking, a low-income single parent with a two-hour commute has limited options when it comes to caring for their health. Virtual solutions that support self-care or provide easy access to counseling have the potential to address these social determinants.

But the survey revealed some gaps between employer and employee perspectives when it comes to creating a culture of health. A third of U.S. workers — but just over a quarter of employers — see the value of allowing workers time off to see health care professionals or get treatments. 

By contrast, nearly half of employers favor incentives to get workers to register for well-being programs, while fewer than three in 10 workers believe this would help them become more engaged. Subsidized nutrition and exercise programs and onsite medical clinics were in the workers’ top-five initiatives for promoting greater health engagement.  

Given this practical focus, just 17% of workers would like to see a greater promotion of digital health resources, compared with nearly a third of employers. Yet this could change in a time when working from home during a pandemic becomes a new normal and employees grasp the value of digital solutions in a way that has not fully emerged. This suggests that digital solutions could be included as part of an integrated set of initiatives comprehensive enough to address the diversity of worker needs. 

From all this, it’s clear that digital health cannot be an end in itself. A pro-health environment encompasses a range of options, but it is fair to say that digital health and well-being solutions will be of increasing importance in retaining, engaging and energizing workers and will have a clear role in facilitating personalized health care. When technology — designed around the end user — connects people to better care than they could get otherwise, that is the sweet spot of digital health.

Companies looking to include or expand digital solutions in their health offerings are starting from an encouraging position in which barriers to adoption are generally low and workers’ trust in their employers is high. 

The survey showed that workers are willing to share health data to receive higher quality, more personalized and convenient care. Most of them trust their employers to keep their personal health information secure. Responsibility falls to employers in developing digital health ecosystems and in putting the right policies and practices in place to protect that trust.

Ultimately, a balance of care is required, and digital health is not a panacea. Health care providers can talk, text, chat, look at pictures of rashes and even listen to heartbeats virtually, but they can’t inject a vaccine — or hold a hand — over WiFi. The coronavirus crisis may spark a new era for digital health, yet it is important for business leaders to look beyond the moment at an empowered future of better health on demand.

Beth Umland

Director of Research at Mercer US Health & Benefits

Beth Umland is the director of research at Mercer US Health & Benefits.

Dr. Lorna Friedman

Global Health Leader, Multinational at Mercer

Dr. Lorna Friedman helps design health solutions for multinational employee populations, including risk analysis, operational and benefit design, and onsite and digital delivery.

Kate Brown

Center for Health Innovation Leader at Mercer US Health & Benefits

Kate Brown is the center for health innovation leader at Mercer US Health & Benefits.

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