Digital health coaching brings care management to everyday life

January 1, 2011

As the healthcare industry pumps up its use of technology, digital health coaching is catching on.

Keypoints:

AS THE HEALTHCARE industry pumps up its use of technology, digital health coaching is catching on. The Web-based programs emulate face-to-face or telephonic sessions but with a medium that members prefer.

Highmark, a Blue Cross Blue Shield company based in Pittsburgh, adopted Web-based health promotion and management tools five years ago.

"We see digital health coaching as a means of replicating live coach educators," says Wendy Vida, manager, health promotion for Highmark's Western Region. "Online consulting proves to be less expensive, more scalable and extremely customized. It's better than a personal trainer."

Highmark has deployed third-party coaching programs, including stress management, an exercise module and a weight-management program.

To track the results among members, Highmark compared participants in an online self-management program and non-participants. Both samples are risk matched, and based on claims data between 2003 and 2007. The study indicates that there were cost savings and lifestyle improvements:

Healthcare costs per-person per-year were $757 less than predicted for participants relative to the matched non-participants. This cost savings yielded a return on investment of $9.89 for every dollar spent on the program after one year of participation.

Vida says that digital health consulting aligns with today's members and their thirst for immediate answers and instant communication. The technology is a worthwhile investment for insurers enabling members to access appropriate, current information especially when it isn't always feasible to see a clinician face-to-face, she says. With answers at users' fingertips, the digital coaching will reduce risk, improve outcomes and prepare members for office visits at a later time.

ONLINE PLATFORM

Programs must use evidence-based behavioral science and technology to create individualized interventions and long-term behavioral changes, says Kevin Wildenhaus, director, behavioral science and data analytics for HealthMedia a provider of digital programs. He says while the core platform is the Internet, HealthMedia's programs also employ text messaging, interactive voice response and mobile devices. Such customized communication tools target individuals based on their own perceived level of motivation, self-confidence and readiness for action.

Most digital coaching starts with an in-depth health risk assessment, which evaluates health-related behaviors, health history, weight, physical activity, diabetes management, blood pressure control, cholesterol levels, back pain management and sleep issues. Based on responses, a personalized action plan is built around a member's health risks.

HealthMedia integrates clinical guidelines with an individual's personal health history, willpower, emotional triggers and goals. To measure participants' progress, the company relies on a tracking method that reinforces healthy, positive behavior changes. Users measure physical activity, calorie intake, blood pressure, weight and other markers, while tracking their emotions and thought processes. Wildenhaus says behavioral changes affect four outcomes: condition prevalence rates, productivity improvement, medical cost reduction and user satisfaction.

Key benefits of digital health coaching are its scalability to address problems of a large population, cost-effectiveness when compared to one-on-one coaching from a live nurse, 24/7 access and convenience for the member.