Big California insurer is ditching 'zombie' workplace wellness programs and focusing on digital health apps

Key Points
  • Workplace wellness programs have had mixed success, at best. Studies are finding that they're not doing much to lower health costs or improve patient outcomes. 
  • Blue Shield of California is ditching these "zombie" programs, in favor of a new web and mobile app that allows people to pick the health and wellness service that suits them best, and change that at any time. 
  • The insurer worked with Solera Health, a start-up, to help curate the digital health apps and services, and match consumers to the program that will help them meet their health goals. 
Employee wellness programs guidelines won’t violate health privacy and discrimination regulations.
Braun S | Getty Images

Companies have embraced health surveys, biometric screenings and other wellness offerings, as a way to keep employees healthy and lower their overall medical costs.

But studies are finding that most traditional workplace wellness programs do not work, and large employers aren't reporting a reduction in their health-related spending, which is now at a record high.

One of California's largest health insurers has had enough.

Blue Shield of California's Bryce Williams, who's responsible for the plan's lifestyle initiatives, feels that these programs are "zombies" that should be phased out.

For Williams, that suggests that the health plans need to go back to the drawing board. "When something is not working, and it's expensive and not delivering results, we need to do something different," he said.

In his view, these programs struggle because they don't often align with the latest medical research. and the rewards are "insignificant," while the penalties, which typically take the form of increased premiums, "don't make anyone feel good."

So the plan, which serves more than 4 million people across California, is rolling out a new offering called "Wellvolution" in across its employer customers, as well as its Medicare. It hasn't ruled out expanding to Medicaid, but has no immediate plans to do so. The idea is to provide members with a curated range of offerings from consumer-friendly digital health start-ups, including apps for stress management, smoking cessation and sleep quality, as well as in-person resources like gym memberships and Weight Watchers classes.

Williams said that his team selected about 70 digital health apps from more than 300,000 that are available on the Apple App Store alone. They spent the bulk of their time vetting the apps that purported to manage a disease, like diabetes or heart disease, to ensure that they had clinical evidence to backup their claims.

According to Williams, there's an online portal for members to login via a mobile app or the web. Members will then be asked to answer some basic survey questions about their health goals. From there, they'll get a recommendation for an app or a service they can use as a wellness perk. If they don't like it, they can change it up at any time.

That way, suggests Williams, "the best tools that our members really like can rise to the top."

The insurer teamed up with a health-tech start-up called Solera Health to develop the service. Solera specializes in developing technology that can match individuals with wellness programs and other health services that best meet their needs.

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