Harnessing Social Media to Drive Wellness

Social Media is a powerful – some would say addictive – tool that influences a wide range of behavior.  Can it make us healthier?

Payer organizations – which are rapidly transforming into “wellness” companies – are increasingly focused on using social media to encourage, incentivize, cajole and even bully their customers into adopting healthier lifestyles. The simple reason, of course, is that a healthier customer base represents a healthier bottom line.

The power of social media as a wellness tool lies in the fact that it’s ubiquitous and accessible, it’s fun, and it drives positive reinforcement and peer pressure. Social media platforms can be used to integrate goal definition and rewards, and allow members to make statements about healthy choices and to gain (and give) positive and consistent feedback.

Consider: you and your Facebook friends post your workout successes on apps like Map My Run, share your healthy recipes and confess your pizza and potato chip indiscretions.  When you share your fitness goals on Facebook, you want to reach them, and you also don’t want to fail in front of your friends. Nor does your insurer want you to fail – and they will be increasingly willing to offer incentives and prizes if you stick to the program.

Healthcare organizations such as Blue Cross/Blue Shield of North Carolina recognize this potential and are developing a range of programs that incorporate social media tools.  Moreover, payers are integrating social media with existing and emerging technologies.  For example, as Americans become more comfortable with chat, email and web-based information, on-line programs can reduce sales cycle times and costs, and be used to gauge customer satisfaction. Mobile applications make it increasingly easy to navigate plans, find physicians and even do first-level triage from a smartphone; they can also be a fitness aid, by recording vital signs during workouts and charting progress.

In addition, existing social technologies such as YouTube and Twitter are adding touch to member populations and being employed as informational and sales tools.

While there’s no limit to the creative possibilities of social media, integrating social media to business strategy is the real challenge – and the first step is to define that strategy. It’s not enough to develop a fun app that motivates people to exercise and eat right.  At the risk of sounding mercenary, payers need to be able to put a price tag on the impact of lifestyle changes on their customers. For example, how will insurers track customers’ lifestyle programs and integrate their progress into patient records? How does a weight loss of 20 pounds or a 30 percent drop in bad cholesterol securely integrate into an EHR, and translate into reduced demand for healthcare services (and increased profitability for the payer)?

Addressing these questions starts with understanding the basic concept that insurance is about pooling for shared risk, and that wellness is about reducing risk through improving the health of the covered population.  Improving health, meanwhile, requires in-depth knowledge of the covered population. The expansion of ICD-10 – which basically increases the volume of available health information five-fold – is a powerful Big Data tool to do just that, by providing opportunities to identify risks, define elements of positive behavior and reinforcement, and initiate outreach to those who need help staying healthy.  The data can also be used to analyze and evaluate the impact of outreach programs on health outcomes and on costs over time.

Big Data will also play a role in helping payers target wellness programs to individual preferences. The rewards and incentives payers offer to customer can’t be generic – a middle-aged man trying to quit smoking will want different rewards from a pre-adolescent battling obesity. Collecting customer data, analyzing that data and then developing tailored and automated programs based on that data will be key to connecting with member populations on an individual level.

Today, healthcare companies and some IT service providers are investing in social wellness technology in an incubator type environment, and are producing viable applications.  The next steps:  assess populations; identify the classic wellness initiatives such as weight loss and smoking cessation; run pilots that integrate the ever-present smartphone as a delivery channel and data collection device; and track costs, impacts on behavior and outcomes.

About the author

Al Denis brings considerable experience in information technology (IT) to ISG clients in his role as Director, Healthcare Practice Lead for ISG. In his career, Al has delivered technical, sourcing and business services to Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, Anthem, Kaiser Permanente, Sentara Health Systems, CareFirst, University of Pennsylvania Health System and Wellpoint. Al is among ISG's most accomplished experts in the evaluation of complex global sourcing alternatives, including solution evaluation and supplier management.