The Wellbeing Revolution: Can Data Solve the Health Crisis?
With medical discovery and technology advancing at a rapid pace, some analysts predict that soon we could all live beyond our 100th birthdays. But a longer life does not necessarily mean optimal health. For example, data from the European Union show that the average number of years someone is expected to continue to live in a healthy condition at birth is about 80 percent of their total life expectancy.
Living longer doesn’t necessarily mean that quality of life would be ideal. “When we talk about health and wellbeing, quality of life is equally, if not more, important as longevity,” says Stephanie Pronk, senior vice president, leader of U.S. Health Transformation, Health Solutions at Aon.
Pronk notes that health technology – particularly mHealth, which includes wearable trackers and apps that can be conveniently accessed via mobile devices – shows promise in improving the world’s wellbeing by promoting healthier lifestyles.
“Technology can be a powerful tool in helping an individual manage their own health and wellbeing,” echoes Peter Ohnemus, president of digital health platform provider dacadoo.* “For example, mobile apps can track various data points, from steps taken to increased heart rates. Coupled with motivational techniques and collaborative features, this type of tech can function as a personal health coach that not only tracks progress but also keeps users accountable and engaged.”
And while health is personal, the role of the employer is still critical. “The aggregated data that can be extracted and analyzed can help employers scale and focus employee wellbeing programs to create healthier, more productive workplaces and manage health-related costs,” says John Zern, chief executive officer of Health Solutions at Aon.
mHealth and advanced information technologies, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, are facilitating these personalized wellbeing initiatives. As a result, employers have access to more data that, when analyzed at scale, can help improve the design of these programs and encourage better health decisions across their employee populations.
Does the path toward solving the world’s health challenges lie in improved use of data and analytics?
Health care costs continue to increase faster than base inflation rates. Aon’s 2019 Global Medical Trend Rates Report found medical inflation averaging 7.8 percent worldwide.
At the same time, we’re living longer. Life expectancy has increased across all regions since the start of the century. Statistics also show that, as lifespans increase, populations are getting less healthy, facing economic insecurity and experiencing more stress.
According to the World Health Organization, more than 70 percent of deaths worldwide result from noncommunicable diseases (such as cancer, stroke, diabetes and heart or lung disease). Meanwhile, mental health issues are also immensely costly: a diminished output due to depression and anxiety projects an annual loss of $1 trillion worth of global economy. “Whether it’s changing our diet, decreasing our stress levels – including stress caused by worries of personal finance – most of society’s major health issues are preventable,” says Jim Winkler, global chief innovation officer of Health Solutions at Aon.
For employers, poor employee health can result in increased presenteeism (working while sick) and absenteeism, reduced productivity, increased claims costs, poor financial wellbeing and general disengagement. “Helping people change their behavior is fundamental to improving their overall health,” Winkler states.
Employers Turn To Technology And Data To Improve Health
In seeking to promote better health choices, a growing number of employers are adopting employee wellbeing programs. In Aon’s 2019 Global Medical Trend Rates Report, 84 percent of respondents named wellness or wellbeing programs as top initiatives. The combination of health technology and data can be a crucial factor in those initiatives.
Insights obtained by this technology contribute to a major new market. Big data in health care was worth $11 billion in 2018 – and it has the potential to experience double-digit growth through 2025 as individuals become increasingly comfortable with wearable devices, at-home testing systems and mHealth apps. Meanwhile, the global mHealth market is expected grow to more than $150 billion by 2025.
A vast range of organizations, from governments to private health insurers, are launching pilot tests to better understand how this technology can improve overall health. In China, for example, tech startups have partnered with government authorities to improve access to health care in its most rural areas. In the U.S., University of Wisconsin–Madison researchers are using wearables to gather data to identify factors causing fatigue and stress in nurses. And the Wellness Council of America encourages the use of data to complement the design, tailoring, promotion and assessment of wellbeing programs and outreach.
In another signal that data and technology in health is becoming big business, Haven – the health care joint venture by Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan – has announced that it aims to improve the health of the three companies’ combined 1.2 million employees. Haven’s search for a data scientist would be the first hire of this type within the Amazon benefits department: a possible acknowledgment of the disconnect between declining health despite rising costs.
Turning mHealth Insights Into Action
Recognizing the importance of data and analytics in wellbeing is only one part of the battle. Organizations also have to find efficient ways of collecting data from mHealth apps and converting the findings into meaningful results. Apps that combine elements of physical, emotional and financial fitness will be particularly helpful in promoting wellbeing.
“The ability to anonymously collect and aggregate data along with analytics capabilities will allow a deeper understanding into what employers and their workers need to stay healthy and thrive,” says Matthew Lawrence, chief broking officer of Health Solutions, EMEA at Aon.
In addition, mHealth allows employers to embed lifestyle-change models into their wellbeing programs – helping them to reduce risk, manage costs and increase performance.
“Digital platforms can provide employees one-on-one wellbeing coaching and allow them to track their progress and trigger behavior changes,” says dacadoo’s Ohnemus.
Gaining Broad Health And Wellbeing Insights, Delivering Customized Solutions Using Technology
A successful mHealth program should work on two main levels – the organizational and the individual.
Any mHealth initiative should not only be based on a broad understanding of factors affecting employees’ health and wellbeing, but it should also address the unique needs of individual workers: financial, emotional, social and physical health and wellbeing,” says Aon’s Pronk. In addition, organizations should support the context of wellbeing offerings and ensure the environment and work culture support them, says Pronk.
The data and analytics provided by mHealth can also work on an organizational and personal scale, giving employers the extensive insights needed to craft comprehensive wellbeing programs while also customizing wellbeing recommendations for individual employees, thereby increasing their engagement, explains Amanda Mercep, head of Wellbeing Solutions, North Asia at Aon.
Indeed, implementing a single, standardized wellbeing program is not a sustainable solution. However, data can play a critical role in creating one. As Pronk notes, “Whether it’s measurement of a program or a better understanding of the unique health challenges populations face, more information increases the likelihood of success – and that’s improving overall health.”
*Note: On May 2, 2019, Aon launched a digital wellbeing platform in partnership with dacadoo.