Wellness programs and solutions providers have been around for a while and are continually evolving based on both successes and failures and the continually changing market landscape. The most recent market impact, of course, is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and it continues to loom large. Many of the national, commercial and local brokers we work with each day are deploying wellness solutions as part of their expansion of services. Brokers are on the front lines when it comes to wellness. Many are making use of social business software capabilities to help employees collaborate and participate.

 

ROI on wellness

Generally speaking, wellness programs have failed to live up to the return on investment expectations of many employers. While there are cases where the ROI has proved out, the overall effect on the cost of health care within employer groups has been minimal.

The latest wave of solutions is based on incentives and outcomes. Rewards when milestones are achieved are most often recommended as part of a point system, where the points can be redeemed for employee chosen goods or services. Monetary rewards like reductions in premiums or contributions to health savings accounts are used as well, but wellness experts believe that money is not the best motivator for a variety of reasons.

In the end even the most innovative solutions fail to address the biggest obstacle to success for wellness programs. This obstacle can be summed up in one word: Utilization. The 80/20 rule applies. Or maybe that should be 20/80 or even 10/90. To really have an impact on the cost of health care, which is where the real ROI comes into play, utilization must be increased.

 

Raising rates

So what can drive utilization? Consider that health related topics are one of the most typed queries entered into search engines. Most people want to know what others have experienced, so they look for support groups, forums, health experts, coaches. A consumer-oriented social health network may be the next big thing on the Web.

One of the biggest problems with the wide variety of wellness solutions is that there is a wide variety of wellness solutions. Insurance carriers, health plans, providers, care organizations, independent vendors and more all offer their own approaches. Employers and other organizations are left with the task of providing wellness programs for their members.

 

Convergence

The problem is that employer groups, associations and the like are too small to drive utilization within themselves. A critical mass of users is needed to push wellness past the tipping point. According to Google DoubleClick Ad Planner, 63% of social networking users are ages 25 - 54, 24% are under 25, and 13% are 55 or older. No one knows why Facebook, Twitter, Groupon and LinkedIn have gone "viral" so to speak, and no can predict what the next big thing will be, but the majority of social networking users are those same people that are most interested in health care and their personal health.

So, now imagine wellness in the context of social networking. Using the metaphor of an umbrella, consider a large umbrella that covers employer groups and other member-driven organizations, insurance carriers, health plans, providers, caregivers, friends and family. A member could begin participation as part of their employer- or member-sponsored program but would easily have access to a broader range of people outside that group.

As a member of a broader social wellness network they would have access to individuals and groups in their geographical area or that have a similar medical problem. They could join not only employer-sponsored challenges or programs but could participate in public or private support groups, have access to a broader range of experts and coaches and even challenges and programs beyond the reach of their employer or member organizations.

Under this broad umbrella those companies providing the experts, the information and services benefit as well by extending the reach of their brand. In the end everyone benefits because most of us care about our health and what we spend on it. People benefit from the experiences of others and want to share. That is what social networking is all about.

Reach Lamb, of Benergy Interworks, at A.D.A.M. Inc., at jlamb@adamcorp.com.

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