Business of Well-being

Personalization is 'Secret Sauce' for any Wellness Program

Personalization drives success across nearly every industry - from smart phone apps to luxury travel. The more products and services can be customized to personal habits, goals or desires, the more success that product or service often has. Wellness programs are no different- personalization matters. The challenge is how to personalize.

The wellness industry faces a double challenge: an effective program must not only be customized for the organization or company that institutes the program, but also for the individuals - employees, family members and others - who participate. Getting either side of that equation wrong can spell disaster.

After all, if the wellness program doesn't align with a particular organizational culture (or its other benefits offerings), the program is difficult to make successful. At the same time, what good is a wellness program that meets organizational objectives, but doesn't makes sense for participants.

A great program with no participation is the wellness equivalent of a tree falling in the forest with no one there to hear it! "Each company has business goals, culture, benefits approach, challenges and more," said Cathy Kenworthy, president and CEO of Interactive Health.

"At the same time, each plan participant is unique. We're all different, not just in our health needs, but also in terms of our willingness to engage. A successful wellness plan must be personalized to the employer and the employee. And that takes work." To be sure, a personalized wellness program delivers very clear benefits:

  • Better Motivation: Triggers to motivate are more effective when they make sense at the individual level.
  • Better Knowledge: Strategies and information associated with the program will be tailored to the company and the participants.
  • Better Engagement: Activities or products that carry personal relevance or meaning increase engagement.
  • Better Results: Companies and participants need to see the bottom line - overall cost-savings combined with better health outcomes for employees and their families.

The tricky balance begins with a basic question, asked, simultaneously, from the employer and employee points of view: What's in it for me? This isn't meant to sound self-centered; it's just the reality. Companies and participants need to understand why the wellness program matters - not in general, but in personal terms.

With case studies to tell the story, a coordinated personalization strategy is the "secret sauce" to wellness program success. Here are some tips.Let's start with the employer: How can you know that a wellness plan is personalized for your organization and your employees?

The first step is to understand your company's business objectives and connect the wellness plan directly to those goals. You should be able to help your executives answer the basic questions:

  • Why they should offer the program?
  • Why now?
  • How will you measure success?

To do this properly, you'll need to understand your organization's unique health and wellness numbers. Beyond cost, what health-related issues are you concerned about? Sick days? General health measurements like obesity or cholesterol? Particular illnesses?

After all, just because pre-diabetes is a huge issue in the United States doesn't mean the condition is relevant to your organization. Another way to customize a wellness program is to consider creating a "package deal" for employees. This means packaging not only what your wellness provider offers, but also every other benefit to your employees, such as health plan benefits (mammograms, yearly well-being exams), EAP, gym memberships and community organizations.

Employers should also ensure that the wellness provider knows and understands the overall benefit package. For example, let's say diabetes - or diabetes medication adherence - is a concern for an organization. Further, let's assume the employer will reduce or eliminate the health plan co-pay on diabetes medication.

In this case, the wellness plan provider can personalize the plan and ensure that all health coaches who work with employees are aware of this opportunity. Finally, the wellness provider can personalize the plan for companies by focusing on company culture. Does a company have - or wish it had - better camaraderie? One approach then is to generate friendly competition around wellness goals, such as creating raffles, with additional prize entries for teams who meet objectives.

But, personalizing the wellness plan for employers is just half the battle. Personalization also has to make sense at the individual level - employee by employee. So let's turn to the employees. Start with the testing, which provides the first personalization opportunity. The initial biometric test is of critical importance.

Getting the clinical results - the numbers - sets the stage for the ensuing personalization. Once the tests are complete, personalize the outreach. Not everyone needs to talk with a health coach. Some may need immediate intervention. Others could be coached on risk-benefits over time. In either case, make the outreach plan personal.

Beyond outreach, additional opportunities to personalize the plan come through coaching. Coaches are critical to plan success; they can create one-on-one relationships that help individuals recognize and overcome personalized barriers.

Beyond effectiveness, this approach carries an additional benefit: Relationships build trust and help participants feel accountable to themselves and the coaches. Further, the outreach format should communicate what makes most sense for the participant. That can mean coaching, online, emails, webinar invitations, and online content.

Once this initial connection is made, personalization for the employee shifts into high gear. Customize the health goal each employee should achieve, and the action plan each should follow:

  • Reward outcomes and make goals personal
  • Recognize meaningful progress
  • Acknowledge that lifetime habits and behaviors are an ongoing journey
  • Reward progress so that those with the longest journey stay on course

Finally, keep aware of other opportunities for personalization, from special invites to webinars that address employees' health needs to recommendations for workshops based on current health condition (i.e. stress management, tobacco cessation, better nutrition) to challenges and ongoing activities. We've seen how personalizing a wellness plan - for employers and employees - can yield terrific results.

Miami Children's Hospital

A case in point is Miami Children's Hospital which sought to change its emphasis from employee participation to accountability. The hospital clearly defined business objectives including making wellness a business strategy, increasing participation and employee productivity, reducing cost and realizing visionary goals like becoming a top employee leader in the wellness industry.

From there, they started with the question: What's in it for the employer and employee? The answers were straightforward and focused on using health improvements as an avenue to enhance each employee's personal life. This made great sense because they were accustomed to helping others improve their health to improve their lives; Miami Children's Hospital just needed a personalized wellness plan that would shift some of that focus to the employees themselves.

A program called "Healthy Triumph" proved a perfect fit. Making the wellness benefits available to employees and spouses made sense for a hospital. Annual biometric screening - "Smart Testing" with a 38-panel blood test and an extensive report - gave hard data to medical professionals who apply scientific results to drive care.

Immediate outreach and intervention secured immediate involvement; meaning no putting off personal care while these caregivers helped others. Online tools and resources allowed employees and spouses to learn more on their time. After all, many work overnight and weekend shifts, so they need information when the moment is right for them.

With ongoing coaching, monthly newsletters and six-month check-ups, wellness remained top of mind. Incentives were added including financial rewards for meeting specific wellness goals instituted.

Because Miami Children's Hospital really took ownership of this solution and, because it made wellness part of its business strategy and not just a "check the box" benefit, many other resources were connected to the program. These included:

  • Connecting health benefits and a disease management program to the wellness approach
  • Ensuring senior leadership program participation, along with wellness champions and Spanish language meetings and materials
  • Leveraging an onsite Wellness Center, plus discounts to local fitness centers
  • Adding an in-house dietician
  • Focusing on healthy eating by providing a farmers' market every Wednesday and daily healthy choice meals in employee cafeteria and vending machines

This personalization and the commitment from hospital executives, yielded tremendous results. Participation ranged from 92 percent of employees to 60 percent of spouses. Importantly, the initial biometric test results showed 399 participants required immediate medical attention - hospital employees and spouses who didn't know they needed this help.

"Our executives were thrilled with the participation," said Janet Lara-Vital, director of Total Rewards and Wellness, Miami Children's Hospital. "In just one year, we were well on our way toward meeting many of our business objectives. Perhaps, more importantly, we were very happy that participants who needed medical attention, but, perhaps, didn't know they needed the help were made aware of important health developments in their own lives. Our leaders know how important prevention is."

While Miami's initial results were excellent, they weren't totally surprising. We know how results trend with clients when personalization is applied to a wellness plan:

  • Members with elevated risk see significant first-year improvements in blood pressure, triglycerides, LDL cholesterol, tobacco cessation and 81 percent of those who received a diabetes-related critical outreach call in 2012 did not require a call in 2013.
  • The "right test, right person, right time" approach - with a 38-panel venipuncture blood draw, health questionnaire and blood pressure - works, as 35 percent of participants receive additional testing (tests they might not have known they needed).
  • Of the participants whose initial tests put them in the "High Risk" category, more than a third reduce their risk or move to a healthy state in just one year.
  • With personalized health goals and appropriate incentives and follow-ups, 77 percent reach their goals.
  • Employers using this approach have seen a 20 percent reduction in medical spending.
  • Wellness program members see decreased workers' compensation and disability claims, with important reductions in costs and days lost.

The accomplishments of the program are assessed by the impact on the organization (financial, cultural, competitiveness) and the impact on individuals (participation, engagement and health improvement). The key to creating this success is personalizing the program for the organization and for each individual participant. No two people have exactly the same needs, so shouldn't the r their wellness journey be personalized? Or at least add some "secret sauce?"

About the Author

Sandi Eskew is a senior wellness strategist at Interactive Health, a leading provider of comprehensive, outcomes-based health management solutions designed to engage employees in the management of their health through early detection and identification of risk factors.

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