Earlier this week, I had the privilege of presenting at the North Carolina Association for Healthcare Quality (NCAHQ) Annual Conference in Durham. I have been a member of NCAHQ since 2004 and I served on the Board of Directors from 2011-2018. It was fun to attend the conference as a member as well as one of the invited speakers.
As many of you know, my education and training are rooted in health education. However, I spent most of my career working in healthcare quality improvement before returning to my health and wellness roots about five years ago when I became a health coach. I have sometimes struggled to figure out how to meld the two worlds I’ve lived in professionally for the past 20 years, but I think I managed to do so with my presentation topic: Innovative Ways to Engage Consumers in Their Health and Wellness. I thought I would share some of the highlights from my presentation.
Health 2.0: Consumer-Driven Health Market
My presentation began by making the business case for the rise in consumerism in healthcare. As just about everyone knows, the US spends more money on healthcare (as a percentage of the gross domestic product or GDP) than most developed nations YET we have some of the worst health outcomes, including life expectancy. In addition, about 80% of the spending in healthcare is tied to the treatment of chronic conditions that are rooted in lifestyle choices. You know the list: heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and of course, obesity. These conditions are the most common and costly – but also the most preventable – of all health conditions.
With the rise of high deductible healthcare plans, which many employers are now turning to as a way to help reduce healthcare costs, consumers are now feeling the pinch in their own pockets. A physician office visit that may have incurred just a $25 copay in the past may now cost upwards of $100. This shift in the health insurance industry has been a wake-up call for many consumers to take a more active role in managing their overall health and wellbeing. We are also seeing the rise of “lifestyle medicine” – the use of evidence-based lifestyle approaches (e.g., a healthy diet, regular physical activity, adequate sleep, etc.) to prevent, treat and in some cases reverse the progression of the chronic conditions noted above. Healthcare is shifting (albeit much slower than many of us would like) from a sick-care model to one with a greater emphasis on promoting health and wellness through preventive services – with individuals taking a more proactive role in their health and wellness decisions.
Consumer Engagement Strategies
I prefaced my presentation by noting that my own passion for health and wellness grew out of my experience being overweight in my youth. It wasn’t until a good friend encouraged me to play sports in high school that I lost weight, gained confidence and realized that my behavior choices could directly impact my health – positively or negatively. This epiphany turned into a desire to help others on their own health and wellness journey. However, I also shared one of the first (and hardest) lessons I learned from my early days as a health educator – that not everyone is intrinsically motivated to make healthy choices or take care of themselves. Sometimes it takes a little extra incentive to get them engaged in the behaviors we know are linked to better health outcomes. I chose to share some of the more innovative strategies being used to help engage consumers in healthy lifestyle behaviors:
- Wearable Technology: A blanket term for electronics that can be worn on the body either as an accessory or as part of the material used in clothing. The most common format is the ubiquitous fitness tracker, such as a Fitbit or Apple Watch. However, there are some new products on the market including the Spree Smartcap and the Hexoskin Smart Shirt. The major selling feature of all of these items is the ability to connect to the internet, enabling the exchange of data between the device/product and a network. This has resulted in the user having access to a whole range of information about their health, such as steps taken, calories burned, heart rate, and sleep, at the touch of a button.
- Gamification: Essentially, the application of gaming elements and digital game design techniques to everyday problems including business dilemmas, social challenges or lifestyle behaviors. The idea is that gamified services tap into our natural desires for competition, achievement and status – and of course, the desire to have fun! One of the more common formats is smartphone apps and I chose to highlight a few including Plant Nanny (to help increase water intake), mySugr (to help diabetics manage blood sugar levels), and Stop, Breathe and Think (to support one’s meditation practice). All of these apps strike a balance between information and entertainment, but most importantly, are designed to help the user achieve sustainable change around the desired health behavior.
- Wellness Incentive Programs: Many employers and health insurance companies have been offering wellness programs for a long time so the idea itself may not be that innovative, but what has evolved are the types of incentives offered to individuals. In the past, employees or customers were often rewarded with small, health and wellness-related products such as water bottles, sweat towels or exercise bands. Then, many programs shifted to rewarding participants with gift cards to their favorite retailers. Today, we are seeing the rise of benefits-based incentives, where achieving a certain level of points for engaging in wellness activities or programs translates into a reduction in health insurance premiums and/or an employer contribution to Health Savings Accounts (HSA). Although these benefits-based incentives are considerably more expensive to implement, studies indicate that they do increase employee engagement in wellness programs.
Helping Individuals Find Their “Why”
I was the final speaker at the two-day conference and in years past, the final presentation has traditionally served as a way to end the conference on a positive note and provide attendees with some inspiration as they return to the workplace. Knowing how hard healthcare quality and safety professionals work every day, I wanted to give them a chance to focus on their own health and wellbeing. Thus, I dedicated the last 15 minutes or so of my presentation to lead attendees through the vision and values exercise I use with my coaching clients. Although we did not have time to take a deep dive into this exercise, I wanted to at least get them started thinking about their own vision of optimal health and wellbeing. Oftentimes, healthcare professionals tend to neglect their own health as they are so focused on taking care of others. This was a gentle reminder of the need to take care of themselves first so that they can continue to take care of others.
If you work in healthcare in North Carolina and are not already a member of NCAHQ, I encourage you to visit their website to learn more about the association and the work of its members to promote excellence, professionalism and continuous improvement in healthcare quality across the state.