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How COVID-19 Affected Member Engagement in Wellness Programs

By Kelsey Waddill

– The coronavirus pandemic may be having an effect on Americans’ exercise life, a recent UnitedHealthcare survey discovered, which may in turn impact payer wellness programming to meet employee expectations.

“Now is an opportune time for Americans to make an investment in their health, with employers in a crucial role to foster healthy habits among employees in the workplace and while working at home,” Rebecca Madsen, UnitedHealthcare chief consumer officer, said in the press release.

“The UnitedHealthcare Wellness Checkup Survey highlights the importance of implementing robust well-being programs that may foster whole person health, reduce absenteeism and curb care costs.”

Over two-thirds of the respondents (68 percent) indicated that walking is their preferred form of activity during the pandemic. This activity was particularly popular among baby boomers and Generation X, around three-quarters of whom highlighted it as their top choice of exercises.

Other common answers—though far less so—included running (28 percent), body-weight exercises (23 percent), cycling (21 percent), and in-home weight training (18 percent).

READ MORE: Digital Wellness Program Saw High Member Engagement After COVID-19

Slightly over half of the respondents indicated that their eating habits were changing during the pandemic as well, though the results were mixed as to whether they experienced this as positive or negative change.

Around one in three of the respondents (30 percent) said that their eating habits had worsened during the pandemic. But 21 percent found that their diet was more nutritious than it had been pre-pandemic.

As a result of the pandemic, a couple of key employee wellness needs have surfaced with even greater force than in non-pandemic times.

“Given the current pandemic, things to help lower stress, improve sleep, and then helping manage chronic conditions are probably the main things that you’re seeing respondents request,” Michael Bess, vice president of healthcare strategies at UnitedHealthcare, told HealthPayerIntelligence.

Studies like UnitedHealthcare’s illuminate how much the coronavirus has altered basic behavioral patterns like activity levels and eating. It also underscores how payers will need to adapt their typical offerings to accommodate these shifts.

READ MORE: How Payers Make Wellness Programming Available Despite COVID-19

Adjusting wellness programming to fit these trends could be a worthwhile endeavor, as the UnitedHealthcare study indicated that these programs effectively motivate employees to pursue better personal health.

Over three in four respondents who had access to wellness programs and were employed said that the wellness initiatives had positively influenced their health. Nearly 50 percent said that the programs caused them to be more aware of their health (48 percent).

Employees indicated that they these programs lower stress (38 percent), improve their sleeping habits (33 percent), and boost their exercise routine (36 percent). A little under one in five of the participants (17 percent) used the UHC program to manage their chronic conditions. Seventeen percent discovered that they had a disease through wellness programming.

These programs also exhibited impacts that were not strictly health-related.

For example, over half of the employees said that wellness programming helped their productivity level. A third said that it decreased their sick days.

READ MORE: UPMC Diabetes Wellness Program to Cut Drug Spending, Chronic Care

And the demand for wellness programming is growing, the survey showed. Seven in ten of the respondents that did not have wellness programming at their workplaces said that they would be interested in participating in one if it was an option.

Additionally, in response to this data UnitedHealthcare is emphasizing member education around personal health and wellness.

“One of the things that we’re doing is trying to educate our members on wellness strategies that we have in place, whether they’re already living with disease or trying to make better choices about their lives,” Bess indicated.

UnitedHealthcare’s approach to member engagement and education on this front relies heavily on technology, particularly during the pandemic.

“With technology, whether it’s UnitedHealthcare Motion, where you have a wearable, or even Level2, which focuses on Type 2 diabetes, gives them a continuous glucose monitor, members can have more responsibility and better understanding of their disease,” Bess explained.

Digital wellness programming has certainly seen a boost due to the shutdown and ensuing social restrictions. Some payers have seen a major uptick in member uptake of their wellness technologies. As Bess alluded, apps and digital platforms have also taken on a far more indispensable role in supporting chronic disease management for members.

The survey also revealed that employees were thinking about health outside of wellness programs as well.

A little less than a third of respondents said that they were more likely to get their flu shot when flu season hits in the fall.

Employees also planned to adjust their workplace habits to follow coronavirus precautions. Older participants were more likely to follow precautions, such as avoiding handshakes when greeting people in the office. About a third of the participants did not intend to stop handshaking, however.

Payers were quick to pivot their wellness programs during the height of the pandemic, but as more recent member data comes in they may need to prepare to make more adjustments going forward.

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