Healthy, Wealthy, Wise and Web Based

Online wellness programs can keep employees healthy while lowering health-care costs.

Open your Web browser and say "ahh." Minus the tongue depressor, Web-based wellness programs are an effective way for manufacturing companies to keep their insurance costs down. Like traditional wellness programs, Web-based programs -- which in many cases can supplement a company's existing initiative -- aim to improve health by reducing risks and managing controllable diseases. But online versions offer advantages over traditional wellness programs, enabling companies to lower administrative, printing and mailing costs by delivering relevant, personalized health information via the Web. Indeed, many companies have implemented Web-based health-care programs with great success. Companies that offer these plans include: WellMed, Portland, Ore., which works with Ford Motor Co., Chevron Corp. and Microsoft Corp. to offer employees an additional means to stay healthy; WellCall, San Francisco, which helps shoe maker Birkenstock Footprint Sandals Inc.'s bottom line via health-care advice; and global consultant Watson Wyatt Worldwide, which assists Kraft in keeping its workers aware of offered health-awareness programs. Part of the allure of an online wellness program is anonymity. Employers benefit because at-risk employees are more apt to participate, thus potentially lowering health-care costs. Indeed, before the Web, many health programs were done face-to-face. "There are two downsides to that: poor participation rates and high costs," explains Craig Froude, CEO of WellMed. "A person with low cholesterol probably wouldn't mind going to a public health fair, but a person with high cholesterol will probably run out the back door for fear of the public process." As for cost savings, Froude says his company can deliver its service for about $5 to $15 per employee per year, while companies that rely on onsite health fairs and supplemental materials can spend upward of $25 to $50 per employee. Another benefit to offering employees Web-based health services is the Internet's reach. Companies that have several locations need to address everyone, not just the employees at the headquarters location. "Web-based wellness allows companies to do it easily," says Fran Miller, president of WellCall. With more than 380,000 members, WellCall has seen a rising trend in self-management and self-care. Companies also have seen the trend and "are interested in helping their employees change unhealthy behaviors," says Miller. "Obviously it's a bottom-line issue. Health premiums have gone up substantially, and companies are trying to figure out ways to help employees take care of themselves." According to one of WellCall's clients, Birkenstock, Novato, Calif., "Overall program utilization has skyrocketed with the online feature. It enables employees to quickly gather information in a private manner." However, employees have to use the program in order to reap the benefits. "The ROI doesn't come from putting the program out there," says Cathy Tripp, senior consultant with Watson Wyatt. "It comes from behavior change and intervention. If you can eliminate office visits by giving people the right content at the right time, there is a definite ROI. "It may not be the silver bullet companies are looking for, but there's definitely a bullet casing here."

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