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Wellness Apps for Workers Becoming More Apropos

With the rise of consumer-driven health care and its emphasis on individuals taking more responsibility for their health care choices, these apps are likely to grow in popularity.

January 6, 2014

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock.

The explosion in wellness apps and devices is making it easier for employers to help their workers stay healthy and active. But with products that do everything from count steps to measure glucose levels, deciding which tools to offer requires a focused wellness strategy, experts say.

“There are lots of new apps all the time, and it’s hard for employers to keep up,” said Chris Chan, a consultant in the health imagination practice at human resources consultancy Towers Watson & Co. “That means that employers need to think about things like: how many apps to include in their suite of solutions, how to integrate the data, what does the reporting look like, how do you encourage participation and make sure it’s fair to groups who aren’t digital natives?”

While most health smartphone apps and devices have focused on wellness activities like tracking steps or calories, a growing number of products are designed to manage chronic diseases like diabetes, asthma and high blood pressure. And with the rise of consumer-driven health care and its emphasis on individuals taking more responsibility for their health care choices, these apps are likely to grow in popularity, Chan said. “The prevalence of apps has been more on the wellness and prevention side, not targeted to people incurring a lot of claims expense. We expect vendors to pick up on this and start targeting those with chronic diseases.”

Employees enrolled in a consumer-driven health plan are more likely to use wellness apps and devices than their colleagues with traditional plans, particularly to track medical claims, according to a 2012 survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Among adults with private health insurance, about 30 percent used an app for nutrition information, according to the survey. About a quarter used one for general health information, weight management and exercise programs.  

Wellness apps

“Consumers are very in tune with their digital lives, and wellness vendors and employers are trying to take advantage of that,” Chan said.

But before employers start purchasing pedometers and heart-rate monitors, they need to understand the health needs of their workforce and their company’s culture and demographics.

“What type of condition or activity do we want to target — cardio, diabetes, medication compliance, or activity, nutrition tracking?” he said. “The program has to be holistic and streamlined. It’s about delivering a consumer experience.”

Another consideration is making sure that everyone has access to the tools.

Justin Reid, a vice president and general manager at ShapeUp, a developer of social wellness programs, said that not all employees have smartphones and not all those who do — like workers on a manufacturing floor — are able to use them on the job. For those companies a tracking device makes more sense, he said.

“Employers are concerned that everyone in the company has a consistent experience. Devices are easier because if you budget for them, they can be bought and distributed. You need a wide range of tools or you will alienate people.”

In fact, the Providence, Rhode Island-based company integrates its Web-based corporate wellness programs with tracking devices and packages the data so employers can gauge participation rates and wellness challenge results.

Among those products are wristbands that track steps, sleep, calories burned and other data.

A growing number of employers are pairing apps and Web-based programs with wearable trackers, said Amy McDonough, director of wellness at Fitbit Inc., which partners with ShapeUp.

“The combination is a really great marriage that leads to all-day activity tracking versus just time spent exercising,” she said. “There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to health.”

The San Francisco-based company offers a variety of tracking products, but its most popular gadget is a wristband that comes in an array of colors. Fitness firms FitLinxx, Jawbone and shoe giant Nike Inc. are other leaders in this category. The idea is to make wellness fun, said McDonough, and gadgets are one way to do that.

One Fitbit client, movie-rental company Redbox Automated Retail, gave trackers to employees who participated in a companywide walking challenge and encouraged them to take photos of themselves wearing their wristbands in unique locales. “This was one of the most effective wellness programs we’ve been involved with in terms of employee engagement,” she said. “They really tied it into their company culture.”

Rita Pyrillis is a Workforce senior editor. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Pyrillis on Twitter at @RitaPyrillis.