How technology can transform employee healthcare

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Healthcare is moving from reactive to preventative as new technology allows for speedier diagnoses than ever before. This is good news for employers and employees, writes David Bourne.

Employer attitudes towards employee healthcare have undergone a profound shift in the past five years. Long gone are the days when the primary focus was private medical insurance (PMI) and on getting employees back to work after a period of illness. This curative mindset has given way to a preventative one – where the goal is helping to stop employees from becoming sick in the first place.

Achieving this relies on employees taking full advantage of the healthcare benefits they are offered. By encouraging them to use their benefits, employers can – to the best of their ability – ensure that any possible health problems are caught early, and the resulting risks minimised. Technology, and the ongoing digitalisation of healthcare, is proving a vital tool in making this change.

More than a minor niggle

Employees are time-poor, and there is a temptation to dismiss minor health concerns as being too trivial to warrant a missed hour at work and potential long wait in the doctor’s surgery.

However, no matter how small health concerns seem, employees need to get them checked out – and employers have a vested interest in encouraging this proactive attitude. Unwell employees are likely to be less engaged in their work and less productive. If suffering from a viral infection, their poor health could also affect the wider business.

But employer intervention isn’t just about keeping the business running smoothly; it’s also about being a responsible employer. With employees investing so much time in their work, there’s a growing expectation that the employer-employee relationship is a two-way street, and that employers will give something back in return. Caring for employees’ health demonstrates this commitment.

Although time-poor employees might be reluctant to travel to their physical GP, virtual GPs offer a readily available source of advice at the touch of a button. These can refer employees to their PMI provider to receive the secondary healthcare they need, faster than a paper referral could. Thomsons’ Employee Benefits Watch 2016/17 found that employees were crying out for this convenient service, with more than 40% of employees desiring access to a virtual GP, while less than 30% of employers actually offered this.

The route to healthcare

Even the best employee wellbeing or healthcare programme would be redundant if employees did not know when, or how, to access their benefits. Employers often implement education programmes to ensure this isn’t the case. But as we know, employees are busy – so when will they be most receptive to this kind of education? One of the most effective times is when employees enrol for their PMI or other healthcare benefits. At this point they’re engaged and ready to receive information, and targeted communications can better drive sign-ups to health benefits.

But a person’s health can change, and employers need to continuously engage employees. Forward-thinking employers are now adding wellbeing hubs to their online benefits platforms. These consolidate the prevention and cure parts of wellbeing programmes, displaying these alongside critical information, such as how to use PMI or how to access virtual GPs. Having all information in one, easy-to-access place means that employees are more likely to regularly engage with their wellbeing, and better manage their physical, mental or financial health.

The AI will see you now

Increasing access to primary healthcare quickens employees’ passage from first diagnosis and the gatekeepers of care – GPs – to secondary healthcare, where they can get the support and treatment they need. Technology will continue to accelerate this journey in the years ahead.

In the not-too-distant future, AI will be able use the vast amounts of healthcare data available to offer diagnoses to employees faster and more accurately than at present. Although an individual doctor may only see a few cases of a particular disease in his or her lifetime, AI tools can be fed thousands of images or piece of information at once, enabling them to spot patterns more effectively.

Over the past few months we’ve seen Google’s DeepMind partner with the NHS to launch an AI programme that can detect signs of eye disease faster and more efficiently than human specialists.  Combined with advances in robotics, such as robotic exoskeletons, and smart healthcare, including bandages that track how well wounds are healing, AI could fundamentally alter the way we think about our health.

The boom in wearables also has the potential to transform healthcare. Wearables can help employees better manage their own health, reducing the need for primary or secondary healthcare. Tools such as connected waistbands, which alert users when they over-eat, and posture-monitoring devices (such as Lumo Lift), which help to prevent musculoskeletal problems, could significantly contribute to better self-health management.

For healthcare to take full advantage of the data these tools can provide, employers will need to ensure they resolve any concerns over data use and that their employees are fully comfortable sharing personal health data with their place of work. Resolve this challenge, and we may one day see AI algorithms and automated healthcare solutions provide diagnoses before employees are even fully aware of symptoms.

Recent digital healthcare innovations, such as wellbeing hubs and increased access to primary healthcare through virtual GPs, will pave the way for these future solutions. As they are put into place in the years ahead, we will see employees receive ever-quicker treatment and be better placed to manage their own health. Employers that take full advantage of these trends will reap the rewards in terms of a healthier, happier and more productive staff.

David Bourne

About David Bourne

Head of health and wellbeing at Thomsons Online Benefits

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