How to deliver health programmes in an ailing economic climate

With a budget deficit not too dissimilar to that of Greece, it is no surprise that the new Government is looking to scrap a number of NHS waiting time targets – the administration and monitoring of which consume significant resources.

Although it is not inevitable that this will have an impact on the accessibility of front-line NHS services, it would take a brave person to predict otherwise. With the prospect of longer waiting times to see a GP or a hospital specialist, there has never been a better time to implement an employee health management programme.

There are many options available to employers, and the first question is usually: “What?” However, once this has been decided, too few organisations spend enough time on the “how”, which in turn can lead to poor programme uptake, low engagement and negligible return on investment.

So, how should it be done? Not surprisingly, there is no panacea for implementing an employee health management programme, but there are some central tenets that tend to hold true for most.

Decisions, decisions

Decide at the outset what success looks like. Have a clear idea about how many employees you realistically expect to participate during the programme time period, as well as what outcomes to expect. If all stakeholders buy into pre-agreed success criteria at programme end, it is much easier to decide on the next steps, rather than relying on the all too frequent “post-hoc” subjective assessments that get made.

Communicate lots, and then communicate some more. Most of us need to be told that something new is happening at least three or four times before we fully absorb the details. This is especially true for population-based health programmes. Use all methods of communication open to you and not just email or posters in the canteen. It is often a good idea to mirror the communication methods used by your organisation for announcing important events or policies.

Consider using one or more of the commonly used social media applications. Creating a programme-specific Facebook page or a Twitter account is easy and can help with communicating the message via an accessible and manageable medium. Just make sure that once the application goes live it is regularly updated, or audiences will wane.

Make it very clear what data are to be stored and who is going to have access. There is a lot of sensitivity about personal information these days, with hardly a week going by without scare stories in the media concerning large swathes of private data being compromised. Personal health information is an even more sensitive topic so it is important to be proactive in addressing any concerns that individuals may have about providing their health data. Most people are happy to get involved if there is transparency on data security.

Use incentives and competition

Incentives don’t have to be financial, but many people do approach these sorts of initiatives with a “what’s in it for me?” attitude. Small prizes for participation or free food at events is often all it takes to tip the balance. Inter-departmental competitions can prove popular with competing groups tracking certain parameters being displayed on a real time leader board.

The competition approach has been taken to new levels in Minnesota, USA, where a state-wide weight reduction competition is taking place with the employees from eight different corporations. We are naturally competitive animals and extremely good levels of engagement and ongoing participation have been seen with such approaches.

Making something mandatory can often yield very impressive outcomes. The public places smoking ban in the UK has reduced smoking prevalence more than any public awareness or taxation strategy. The mandatory aspect can be blended with incentives. For example, a number of organisations reduce the employee payable private medical insurance excess costs for those who take part and “graduate” from certain health promotion programmes.

Keeping people healthy, as well as helping those with long-term conditions to manage their health the best they can, has been shown to reduce absenteeism, boost productivity and generate a return on investment for employers. Couple this with the likelihood that those in need of medical treatment need more time off work and it all adds up to being a good time to take a closer look at how you can implement a proactive health management programme for your employees.

Dr Peter Mills is a population health expert.

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