Digital leaders will be one step ahead on employee wellness

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Chronic disease prevention and management will become an essential service for corporates going forward, predicted two medical experts, who agreed that rapid technology advancements in the past year have become a game-changer.

Companies that adopted digital systems to manage wellness programmes for their employees were one step ahead when the pandemic hit and are well positioned for the post-Covid-19 landscape, they added during the Commercial Risk ‘Lessons from Covid-19 and why chronic disease management is so important’ webinar,sponsored by Maxis Global Benefits Network.

“There was an explosion and digital transformation in 2020,” said Dr Leena Johns, head of health and wellness at Maxis. “Going forward, we know that healthcare systems will be hugely interconnected, consumer-centric and wellness-oriented.”

Beyond that, she said there is likely to be a sea-change in the treatment and management of chronic diseases as a result of the work done to combat Covid-19, which will have a ripple effect for all companies’ management of employee wellness.

“We are all amazed by the speed with which the Covid-19 vaccines came to the market, so we foresee that these developments will transform underwriting models and transform the medications that we use on a daily basis for our chronic conditions. It will transform the way we treat diabetes, cancer, chronic inflammatory disease and infectious diseases,” said Dr Johns.

“If you look at the Covid vaccine, it is unlike any other vaccine that came before. What they did in creating this vaccine was nothing short of phenomenal. They loaded it onto a nanoparticle and this tiny droplet carried the vaccine component. Imagine what similar technology could do to cancer care – it could reach the target cell without being degraded and enhance the body’s response. I can’t wait to see what lies ahead of us,” she added.

Dr Neil Gordon, CEO and founder of Intervent International, said technology has a massive part to play in the future of wellness management. “We are seeing an increased emphasis and focus on comprehensive programmes that can address multiple behaviours and risk factors in an integrated fashion as part of a programme,” he said.

Dr Gordon explained that there is a clear trend towards proven programmes with documented outcomes. Going forward, he believes there will be more integrated wellness programmes covering what happens at work and in the doctor’s office.

There will also be increased use of wearables and devices for tracking and monitoring health, along with a growing ability to specifically target interventions, he added.

“We need to prepare for what will be happening in the future. Also, we need to prepare for variations of the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as for the possibility of for other pandemics. I expect we will see chronic disease prevention and management as an essential service going forward,” Dr Gordon said.

The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns had a huge impact on the care of all chronic diseases, the pair said. They were extremely optimistic that the lessons learned will provide an opportunity to take a huge leap forward.

Dr Johns said Covid-19 has shown across the world that “chronic disease is not just a healthcare cost issue, but it makes your employees vulnerable and susceptible”.

“That is the revelation that we know today. There is no denying that there has to be a strong focus on chronic disease management in the corporate wellness ecosystem. The pandemic has provided us with a strong business case for employee wellness,” she added.

She pointed to the surge in mental health issues among employees worldwide, fuelled by uncertainty and fear, as well as financial concerns. The lockdowns also meant access to exercise, including daily activity such as walking to the station or climbing a flight of stairs to a colleague’s office, was compromised. This has certainly had its impact on physical health, said Dr Johns.

She said Covid-19’s impact on healthcare delivery was completely disrupted. “We saw patients foregoing their medical treatments and procedures. That was a year ago. A year later we see that this could have actually been a blessing in disguise for the healthcare industry,” said Dr Johns.

Adding: “It was a turnkey moment for the digital transformation of the healthcare industry. Healthcare and insurance are two industries that are always resistant to change – particularly technological change. But all of that has changed.”

Almost overnight, medical providers and corporates sought new methods to deliver healthcare to patients. At the same time, there was an explosion of tele-healthcare. Now, Dr Johns believes the trend is irreversible and even preferable to face-to-face encounters.

However, she also had a warning for employers. She said they have failed in efforts to weed out unhealthy behaviours among employees, particularly those related to diet and physical activity.

She explained that employees spend one third of their lives at work, making employers best positioned to tackle these problems head-on.

Crucially, she said, the latest data shows that chronic disease rears its head in much younger people than previously thought. She urged corporates to take a look at those younger members of staff and work with them to reduce the risk of issues later on.

Dr Gordon said research is clear. Among US adults, more than 90% of Type 2 diabetes, 80% of heart diseases, 70% of strokes and 70% of cancers are avoidable through a combination of five major lifestyle changes to address: smoking, physical inactivity, excessive alcohol consumption and incorrect nutrition.

“Lifestyle plays a profound role. It’s extremely important for employers in this day and age to create an environment at the workplace that is conducive to healthy living and to implement programmes that are aimed at helping employees adhere to major lifestyle changes,” he concluded.