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Corporate Wellness From Fax Machines to Bots

David O. Keys, Director, Global Benefits, The Hershey Company

Over the past 30 years I have seen the wellness landscape evolve from a needs only (fix it when it's broken) to a “whole life”-based approach to wellness. At the beginning of my career, companies focused on offering a basic indemnity medical plan, which does not even exist in today’s market.  Occasionally, companies would offer a dental plan, possibly a vision plan but rarely any sort of wellness program. All of these plans required a trip to the Human Resources office for a summary of benefits and benefit enrollment completion.

At that time, companies did not understand or appreciate the need to provide employees and their dependents a wellness program.  The few companies that did offer a wellness program, did not offer anything close to what a wellness program is today.  Wellness providers were also few and far between 20 plus years ago.  The wellness companies that were around were often small boutique firms that offered a specific wellness program with few options; they had very limited reporting capabilities and struggled to prove the return on investment (ROI). There was no track record, and companies were hesitant to implement wellness programs due to costs and an unproven approach to reduce costs.

As wellness programs began to emerge in the corporate landscape, they were generally started regionally with limited scope on improving an employee’s overall health. These initial programs were created for specific needs (e.g. smoking cessation or diabetes) and did not address the holistic quality of life of employees. There was no technology available to allow companies to gather information on program utilization or the success of the programs in controlling costs.  Without the tools to prove ROI and the inability to track usage, coupled with the overall nature of the “non-black and white” nature of wellness it was hard to sell management on investing in such programs.

In the late 1990’s, with the support of computer technology, wellness programs began to extend on a nationwide scale.  It might be hard for current Benefits Managers to comprehend, but when I started in this field, fax machines were the only method of communicating documents or sharing information.  Email capabilities did not materialize until the mid-1990’s, with a slow adoption rate. As technology progressed, regional wellness providers expanded their offerings, large well-known medical providers entered the market and some even started their own separate companies entirely focused on wellness.

As we entered the 2000s, wellness programs started to really take hold and expand nationally.  Computer technology was leading the way.  No longer was there a need for employees to make a trip to the Human Resources office to sign up for benefits or to learn about a (often sensitive) wellness program details.  Websites were developed, email systems were operational, and wellness providers now had several years of data to support their theory that wellness programs would lower healthcare costs and improve the quality of life for employees. Technology was permitting management to demonstrate the ROI of wellness programs.

With computer technology booming, a new hurdle appeared that took many years to overcome; the fear that “Big Brother” is watching. The Big Brother syndrome has not completely disappeared but is more manageable today with current privacy regulations (such as HIPAA) and website security protocols to protect everyone’s personal identifiable information (PII) and personal health information (PHI).  Regardless of how any program is setup, there are Business Associate Agreements (BAA), Information Technology security protocols, security (both onsite and IT related) that must also be completed.  Long gone are the days when a Benefits group would setup a new program on its own.  There are now reviews by Legal, IT, and Security on both sides of the program to ensure data is safeguarded at all times and that limited individuals have access to identifiable information.

Computer technology has been key for wellness program success.  Data collection and quantitative approaches to proven ROI has allowed companies to justify the cost of implementing wellness programs on a much broader scale.  Real-time access to program activities has benefited employees who take advantage of the improved health and quality of life these programs provide.  Thanks to technology, employees no longer have to visit the local Human Resources office for information; wellness information is available 24/7 from your smartphone. 

An exciting new innovative approach we have implemented is the development of a “Chat Bot”.  At Hershey, we call ours “Bennie”.  Bennie is programmed with over 1,500 questions covering 13 topics ranging from medical, retirement, paid time off, and of course wellness.  This type of technology enables employees to easily and confidentially access information on any type of benefit program, 24/7.  The chat bot can be used by an interactive website; text from your smartphone; and also includes the ability to ask your questions via an Alexa device.

Technology has driven the expansion of wellness programs, but over time, many Benefits Managers have also changed their approach to wellness.  Everyone learns with experience and the approach I am using today is dramatically different from my first corporate wellness program.  My approach today is very simplistic; employees just have to do one event and they are DONE.  Long gone are the days of wondering who to call, how to participate, am I qualified registering for a program, completing surveys on slow response websites, and standing in line to complete a health risk assessment with biometric screenings. 

Today’s approach is automated.  We coordinate eligibility with our medical carrier; the medical carrier’s claims payment system is set up to identify when a claim is submitted for a preventive exam by looking at the CPT code and then (automatically) a wellness incentive is issued to your Health Reimbursement Account (HRA) or Health Savings Account (HSA).  All without anyone touching a piece of paper or any human intervention.   It is 100% automated via data feeds and system setup at our medical carrier, allowing employees to access wellness offerings they need, in a confidential and supportive manner.

Technology has delivered a positive ROI, but more importantly, companies, like Hershey, have evolved to a more sophisticated and employee-focused approach that looks at preventing health issue before they happen rather than just providing the coverage to fix it once it occurs.  This is today’s holistic approach to wellness, a preventive approach to healthcare.  Like many companies, Hershey is a close-knit and multigenerational company with many employees having several generations working for our company. It is important for our future to control healthcare costs now to enable us to provide comprehensive benefits programs 50 to 100 years from now.  Hershey is not looking for a short-term solution, but rather a long-term solution to controlling costs and implementing a simple but comprehensive wellness solution that focuses not only our employees but their dependents by encouraging preventive exams.  This approach looks out for the best interest of our employees and their families by identifying potential health issues before they expand into major life events.

The evolution of wellness programs has been exciting to watch. It started slowly but has now taken a place of prominence in our healthcare programs.  It is even more critical in our world today in support of the wellness of our employees, and this would not be possible back in the days of fax machines.  I expect technology to continue to evolve, allowing us to continue to provide (and improve) this most critical of benefits to our employees.  The question I ask myself is what will the next 10 years bring to wellness and how different will it look in the future. We started with fax machines, are now using Bots and Virtual reality….. what’s next?  I am excited to be part of this evolution.

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