Three Reasons to Mobilize
Lots of people have reason to be happy about the trend toward digitizing employee benefit programs, not least employees. But few people have more reason to be happy than Jeff Young, CEO of Evolution1 in Edina.
Young’s business has tripled in the past three years, becoming one of the largest technology providers in the country for health insurers, banks, third-party administrators, and others that want to upgrade the benefit programs they sell to employers. And increasingly, what they want to add to their offerings is mobile apps.
“The demand is increasing at just a phenomenal pace,” says Young, whose company provides the underlying technology for apps and other tools that are branded and distributed by partners: Blue Cross and Blue Shield insurers across the country, Bloomington-based benefits manager Ceridian, and California software and smartcard maker Intuit, among others. “What employers and consumers expect to be able to do on their mobile devices, that bar is rising very, very quickly,” Young says. Evolution1’s mobile apps are designed to manage health care accounts, wellness programs, and commuter benefits. Employers provide those programs, but when it comes to incorporating mobile apps they’re not always leading the charge—their employees are. “It’s very early in the game for employers to use mobile apps,” at least locally, says Jean Hanvik, a Twin Cities consultant with SGH-Weber, part of the Ohio-based Weber Associates management consulting and creative services company. Just a few months ago, at a summit of the Minnesota Health Action Group, a coalition of employers and others who want to make health care more effective and less costly, Hanvik says employers spent a roundtable session talking about “what kinds of programs they’re putting in place for health improvement and disease management. And it’s still a lot of print, it’s still a lot of lunch-and-learn.”
Those things aren’t bad, say Hanvik and others. Mobile apps aren’t meant to stand alone as a be-all, end-all solution, but to work as part of a mix with printed information, websites, and on-site events. “If you really want to reach as broadly as you can into your population, you ought to make things available to people wherever they are,” says Eric Zimmerman, chief marketing officer for RedBrick Health in Minneapolis, which helps employers improve health and wellness initiatives. “With that said,” he adds, “if you’re not mobile, you’re really missing a key part of how I consume information today.”
Consumer-Driven Health Care Means Consumer-Driven Programs
By March this year, 46 percent of U.S. adults had smartphones—60 percent or more in some subgroups, such as college graduates, people with incomes of at least $75,000, and 18- to 35-year-olds, according to the Pew Research Center. (“Are Smart Phones Spreading Faster Than Any Technology in Human History?” Tech site Mashable answered its own headline with a tentative yes, though it noted that tablet computers are coming on even stronger.)
U.S. Bank saw the trend and introduced its first mobile apps for retail checking and savings accounts in 2009. In March last year, with help from Evolution1, it rolled out its first version of the U.S. Bank Healthcare mobile app, but not because employers asked for it, says Bill Ware, vice president and senior product manager for the bank: “It was just really understanding what the end consumer’s going to need.”
Two upgrades later, the bank says its health care app is on the Apple and Android devices of nearly 200,000 health account holders—customers who have health savings accounts (HSAs), flexible spending accounts (FSAs), and health reimbursement accounts (HRAs).
U.S. Bank’s app and a spate of similar apps available from other banks and tech firms are meant to help consumers. “How do you engage employees in the health care dialogue?” Ware asks. “We’re putting them into these consumer-directed health care plans and giving them more control over their spending, but what additional tools can we provide for them?”
Health account apps typically let people see their account balances and review transaction activity. Like U.S. Bank’s, they tend to come as part of a suite of supports—websites, debit cards, HSA investment options—that integrate with an employer’s other health benefit procedures and help people manage their funds.
“You can use the camera on a mobile device to take pictures [of receipts], and then securely upload that image, rather than mailing it in or trying to make a scan that you can then attach to an e-mail or upload through a website. It’s just a much cleaner experience,” Ware says. “Some of the managers that are running FSA programs, they think that’s really cool, because it really creates ease of use for their employees.”
Mobile = Social
OptumHealth also has employers as customers, providing them with health and wellness programs and health-related financial services for their employees. But the Golden Valley–based business, part of UnitedHealth Group, went straight to consumers when it launched its first mobile app in late 2010.
With no significant marketing effort or paid advertising for the OptumizeMe wellness app, by mid-June this year, OptumHealth had seen a total of 30,000 downloads through friends inviting friends to use the free app and “sharing it organically,” says Karl Ulfers, OptumHealth’s vice president of consumer solutions. It’s not an astounding number, he acknowledges, but one the company feels good about, given the way it was reached.
All those downloads reinforced a key insight for OptumHealth: Mobile devices are also social devices. As research firm ComScore reported earlier this year, more than 64 million U.S. adults use their mobile devices for social media, and about half of them do so daily.
OptumizeMe puts that phenomenon to work by allowing people to set fitness goals, track their progress, and set up challenges to compete with friends who are also trying to eat healthier foods, be more active, or lose weight. In a new version released in early May for employers only, a user’s chosen goal shapes everything that comes downstream: the app recommends relevant wellness and fitness challenges, provides personalized trackers and tips, and automatically integrates data from the popular FitBit activity monitors, so users don’t have to manually key in what they’ve done. The app also ties into a user’s social media, and pulls in support from OptumHealth’s fitness coaching services.
“Within the app, you can actually secure-message back and forth with your coach,” Ulfers says. Like most apps, OptumizeMe comes as part of a bundle of services for employers that help them understand and support the health of their employees. But the app is no mere add-on from OptumHealth’s perspective, it’s a keystone.
“We really believe that the reason this approach, from an app perspective, works is that if you look at some of the studies that have been done by the New England Journal of Medicine, for example, there’s such a huge correlation between an individual’s health and their overall social community,” Ulfers says. “OptumizeMe . . . allows people to leverage their friends and leverage their community around them to keep them motivated to improve their health.”
More Tools Become Your Tools
Along with social support, mobile can bring another element to wellness programs. It’s what RedBrick Health calls the “gamification” of working toward better health, and it means bringing together the mechanics of games—the social and competitive aspects, but also winnings in the form of rewards—to modify people’s behavior, as RedBrick does in its RedBrick Life app.
Axcept Media in Minneapolis followed a similar line of thought when it created the Pocket Benefits mobile app, which it introduced in 2010 (and sold last year to global payment services company FIS). Axcept creates technology platforms used by customers nationally including FedEx, Coca-Cola, Bank of America, and 3M. Pocket Benefits lets users create and send personal medical histories to their doctors, use calculators for retirement planning, and draw on a whole range of benefits-related functions. But a significant piece of the app, says Axcept Media CEO Korey Erb, is a game-like feature where users shake their device for a “Magic 8 Ball” delivery of health trivia.
“The key with employee benefits within mobile is not just an app where you download it and it’s like a calculator, but something that is truly engaging,” Erb says, and ideally these days, something that changes and updates in real time.
RedBrick Life, launched in January, takes a next step, going from “game” to “gamification.” It’s available to users through their employers, who buy bundled services—communication and coaching programs, analytics on employee health—from RedBrick. RedBrick customers include locally based Cargill and G&K Services, Sara Lee in Illinois, and New York medical equipment maker Welch Allyn. Employees get health assessments, a personalized “HealthMap” for working toward their goals, and capability through the app to engage in competitions with other users. An employer’s disease management programs, 5k runs, and WeightWatchers or healthy cafeteria food programs can all be incorporated into the app.
Zimmerman says the rewards in RedBrick’s system often come “in ways that directly influence your paycheck. We integrate with payroll, so for some of our clients, they might make it such that your employee contribution toward your health benefits is reduced the more you engage.” Employer deposits to an employee’s health savings account can also be used as rewards, along with more standard incentives, such as gift cards.
Underlying RedBrick Life is what Zimmerman calls an “open ecosystem,” an integrative approach that works with, rather than competes against, other apps and devices. For employers, it means that the healthy behaviors and health-related technologies that their employees have already adopted outside of a company wellness program ultimately become part of the program.
“We recognize that people are using all kinds of different apps and tools, so one of the things RedBrick does is to say, ‘Whatever you’re doing today, that’s OK, too,’” Zimmerman explains. If you’re an employee who already uses the RunKeeper app to track your fitness activity, for example, “you don’t need to do anything different. You can simply link your RunKeeper account to RedBrick and all of that activity is credited,” he says. The same is true with FitBit and other widely used tools.
“We make it easier for your employer to allow people to get credit for what they’re already doing with other apps and devices and programs,” Zimmerman says. Because of that, a company’s health initiatives can reinforce and build on good habits rather than trying to change them to suit a new system.
Any integrative app that can pull in other tools and expand on a company’s own efforts looks like a smart acquisition just now. “So many human resources departments either haven’t grown or have shrunk in the last three or four years,” says Evolution1’s Jeff Young. “They’re trying to handle what is one of the most complex changes in insurance ever, and they’re doing it at a time when they have so little extra funding, and in many cases less funding.”
Mobile apps, already a fixture in most people’s personal lives and requiring a very low learning curve, are one way to ease HR overload by enabling employees to do more for themselves. Young says, “Human resources departments that put out a great mobile solution, they see very quickly how self-sufficient their employees want to be.”
Next-Up Apps: What local providers are working on now.
Through a two-year-old relationship with Fidelity Investments, RedBrick is “exploring the possibility of translating healthful investment into financial investment in the form of 401(k) contributions,” says Eric Zimmerman, chief marketing officer. Just as health savings account contributions or reductions in the employee share of health insurance payments can be used as rewards for healthier behavior in the current version of the RedBrick Life mobile app, “we’ve done design work around a 401(k) option,” Zimmerman says. “We’ve not implemented it, but it’s on the drawing board.”
The bank’s current mobile app for health accounts can manage the supporting documentation related to insurance claims—taking and transmitting images of receipts—among other functions. “Future functionality is to actually create that transaction, create the claim request,” says Bill Ware, vice president and senior product manager. “So you could be at the pharmacy, and before you get to your car, you could have picked up your prescription, filed a claim, supported it with documentation, and you’re done with it.” That new functionality is due out from U.S. Bank this year, Ware says.
Karl Ulfers, vice president of consumer solutions, says his company will come out with a new version of the OptumizeMe health-improvement app in the fourth quarter that lets employees take part in and track their progress in company-specific fitness and wellness challenges.
While helping people work toward better health is the core of what the company does, another question is “How do we help them better navigate the health care system?” Ulfers says. “So we’re actually working on applications that are focused on helping people find the right doctor for their needs, understand what their costs are, and basically that whole side of helping them.”
Disclosure: OptumHealth is a client of the custom content division of MSP Communications. MSP Communications publishes Twin Cities Business.