Digital health delivers on promise of personalized medicine
May 28, 2018
Posted by: CPHR Manitoba
As featured in the Spring 2018 issue of HRmatters
Authored by James Aw, MD, DOHS, Chief Medical Officer, Medcan
Earlier this year, I read a short but powerful article in The Lancet titled “The art of medicine: Changing minds about changing behaviour”. I immediately forwarded it to many members of my team – clinical, leadership and managerial – because of its wide-reaching relevance to anyone committed to employee health, engagement and development.
The article’s author shares the latest insight and understanding of behaviour and health research. She highlights what many in the field have long observed: to transform lives, we must redesign our environments. As a physician committed to workplace health and wellness, for me that means finding the most efficient and effective ways to make conscious the non-conscious nature of how live, work and play.
Workplaces committed to wellness are considering the value of digital health platforms, and rightly so. Luckily, we work at a time when key behavioural challenges can be met harmoniously by the digital health technology currently in market. In fact, digital health allows us the ability to deliver on the promise of personalized medicine.
Through the effective use of big data, all three players (employees, employers and health providers) can benefit from more optimal health, and fewer cases defined by preventable illness, and disability.
Workplace digital health tools must be easy, sustainable and scalable
Sustainable behaviour change requires constant interaction and follow-up over time, and is most helpful with some type of measurement throughout. The best digital health platforms meet the criteria of behavioural and health research: they are easy to use; they offer constant, iterative and sustainable support; and they are scalable for small and large organizations.
Health coaches offer nudges and helpful relationships to employees reaching for specific health goals
Take for example a digital health app that works alongside a health coach like Megan McAdam, a registered nurse at Medcan with a certificate in health coaching. She says the value of offering health coaching to employees is multi-dimensional. It helps some employees go from ill to well; and others go from good to great.
“It helps with disease prevention and management, as opposed to solely disease treatment, which lets our clients shine at work with more concentration, fewer missed days, and finding more joy and fulfilment in their day-to-day.” said Megan. “Coaching gives employees an opportunity to explore a different way of thinking about their health and their approaches, which can be overwhelming when first starting out.”
Digital health coaching relies heavily on positive psychology … and the right platform
Using her training in positive psychology, Megan works on the small milestones that her clients determine will be most successful in achieving. She uses discussion and relationship building, and adjusts strategies when necessary. Goal setting and emotional cues are key to help the employee understand what worked and what didn’t work. Understanding one’s strengths and areas of improvement are equally important for Megan’s clients to achieve their specific, personalized behaviour changes (i.e. avoid high blood pressure, manage seasonal anxiety or complete a first 5K run).
But Megan’s expertise and contribution to the employee’s experience is only part of the reason why the employee’s behaviour change is more likely to succeed using digital technology. The platform’s accumulated data is also crucial. While specific patient data is protected and confidential, employers can receive aggregate digital health reports that offer insight into employee engagement, health trends and outcomes. Overall engagement may be measured by the participation rate or selected journeys. Other analysis may provide a big-picture look at the key demographics of the workplace population and highlight specific health domains like nutrition or disease prevention.
Employee, Health Provider and Employer: Win-win-win with effective digital health platform
From the employee’s perspective, health goals are more likely to be attained with the support of a health coach. Coaching works because it is a relationship that requires the employee to be held accountable in an encouraging environment. And for most of us, it uncovers what motivates the employee to change, meets them where they are, and provides simple steps to getthere, digitally or otherwise. Other digital employee health solutions can address acute conditions through virtual medical appointments or offer proactive mental well-being support through virtual psychological counselling.
From the health provider’s perspective – say a health coach, psychologist or primary care practitioner– technology makes it easier for us to get to know the user (our client or patient, your employee). With the accumulation of data, we can uncover the habits or routines that are, usually unknowingly, getting in the way of reaching specific health goals or optimum states of well-being. Digital health also helps health providers, like Megan, align with the best service or tactic to affect change on an individual or organizational level.
From the employer’s perspective, digital health is good at measuring and sharing progress, and informing future workplace programs and environments. It offers an easy and sustainable way to feed information back to the employer in real- time so that companies can design environments that support their human resources mentally, emotionally and physically. Payors have a sense of what is the most efficient way to link to the best outcomes.
Do not skip this step: Share with your employees what you are doing with the data
For many of the employees and employers I work with, the greatest challenge is the perception that data could be used against the person being measured. Here’s what it boils down to, it’s important to set boundaries at the front end of the digital health relationship. Answer your employees’ questions: “How are you using the data?” “In what way are you going to use this information to improve the health and wellness of the workplace or community?” Most employees will be very open to sharing data if they know what is being done with it.
Together, employees, health providers and employers can shine a spotlight on the non-conscious or hidden behaviours harming our states of mind and body, and our day-to-day performance. Through this rich behavioural data collected by digital health technology, we can identify all sorts of patterns and trends to integrate into current, and create new, environments that not only prevent illness but lift people to live their best life at home, at work and at play.