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Could the digitalisation of workplace health reduce public spending?

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Wichy)

It’s no secret that the British healthcare system is under-pressure and that a huge proportion of this weight could be removed if we all looked after our health a little better. One in four people still die due to preventable diseases, such as heart or respiratory issues. Meanwhile lifestyle-related illnesses cost the NHS more than £11bn a year, with the associated sick days leaving British firms £77 billion worse off annually due to lost productivity. The combined cost to the British economy is huge – and it’s within everyone’s best interests to solve the problem.

Over the past decade, we’ve seen a subtle shift in who’s assuming responsibility for healthcare, with employers increasingly feeling and demonstrating a duty of care for employees, so that some of the load is removed from the state. This makes sound business sense really; if employees are healthier, they take fewer sick days and are less likely to develop long-term health conditions that will result in high premiums for private health insurance.

This shift of responsibility to the employer has coincided with advances in healthcare technology – which over the last decade has made its way out of operating theatres and into the everyday lives of health-conscious individuals. 

These two areas are converging so that we’re seeing employers increasingly turn to technology to drive improved health within their workforces. While this isn’t a wholly altruistic move, it is one with positive repercussions for society and the public purse.

The rise of fitness tracking

One area where we’ve seen considerable advancements over recent years is fitness tracking. UK insurer, Vitality, was a frontrunner in this space – enabling employees to link their fitness tracker or mobile to their scheme and earn points/rewards for activity. More recently we’ve seen US insurer, John Hancock, apply fitness tracking to all its schemes. While controversial, this presents clear value to all involved. Employees benefit from reduced premiums, employers feel their people’s gratitude for facilitating this, while insurers ensure they’re covering a healthier group of people. 

Looking at what employers already offer, alongside the latest innovations in self-care, we can make an educated guess as to what might be next on employers’ agendas.

Health assessments are already a common facet in PMI schemes, while genome sequencing kits, such as those offered by 23andMe, are gaining increasing traction among the general public. You can see how these could be wrapped into an employers’ healthcare package to offer their people a window into the medical conditions they may be at risk from developing or passing on in the future. Tests could be undertaken at the start of employment and supported by annual health assessments, treatment through PMI and more light-touch preventative healthcare benefits, such as free fruit. The result would be a holistic healthcare package, uniquely personalised to the employee.

Immersive technologies; bringing a new dimension to workplace health

Taking this one step further and cross-referencing with artificial intelligence (AI), employers could take the data gained on an employee via their fitness tracker (the number of steps they do, health assessments, weight etc.) to look at their chances of ill-health in later life. With some of the most common and costly medical conditions linked to lifestyle factors, providing employees with an early warning that they’re becoming more susceptible to these could help alter their behaviour, improve their health and reduce the burden on our healthcare systems.

Looking further into the future, there’s potential for employers to use augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) as drivers in preventative healthcare.

There’s already a wealth of applications out there using AR to show how a person could look in old age. At present these Snapchat-style filters are commonly used for entertainment – but imagine layering this software with lifestyle data to provide a real indication of how a person’s diet and exercise regime could impact their physicality. Employees would be able to meet their later-life selves, an experience which could provide an effective wake-up call for many, encouraging them to rethink the lifestyle choices that could have a negative impact on the ageing process.

 

What’s preventing the progression of workplace health tech?

All the above solutions demand employees to share a large amount of highly personal, potentially sensitive data with their employers. There are two issues associated with this, the first being trust.

Employees need to be sure that any information collected about their health will not impact their relationship with their employer. If genetic testing reveals a pre-disposition to diabetes for example, they must know that employers won’t shy away from giving them more responsibility or a promotion in anticipation of time off for sickness that might never come. To counter this risk, it’s likely that employees would want a contractual agreement with their employer before handing over this information.

Even if employees were happy to share their heath data with their employer, a regulatory issue remains following the implementation of GDPR. There is no justification for employers to share or store individuals’ health data – meaning that drilling down to a micro level to anticipate individual healthcare outcomes could contravene the legislation.

Despite this, analysis of the data legally accessible through workplace health schemes could still expose macro trends with the potential to play a role in encouraging individuals to uphold better self-care behaviours. By comparing absenteeism levels to the number of employees taking preventative measures to care for their health i.e. wearing fitness trackers, taking a genome sequencing test or even subscribing to subsidised gym memberships or free office fruit, employers will be able to correlate better health with better self-care. 

Without a doubt, the digitalisation of healthcare offers huge potential to expand the preventative healthcare initiatives offered by employers as part of their benefits schemes and improve their effectiveness. By promoting these, alongside healthy lifestyles and exercise, employers can reduce the strain on publicly provisioned healthcare.

While employees will still need to engage with the healthcare system for diagnosis, achieving a more health-aware workforce should help prevent health issues occurring and escalating, therefore reducing those which reach curative stages.

James Akers, Director of Product Management, Thomsons Online Benefits
Image source: Shutterstock/Wichy