Firms in US step up staff health with incentives

Besides supplying activity trackers, they offer perks such as cash, discount on Apple Watch

WASHINGTON • Stroll around the office or neighbourhood six times a day, and earn US$1.50 (S$2) towards your health insurance. Step up activity a bit more and bring the total to US$1,400 annually.

The catch: You need to wear a special activity tracker that monitors steps taken, "intensity" levels and other physical indicators.

That is the offer in a new insurance product marketed by UnitedHealthcare, the second-largest US health insurer, one of many programmes aimed at boosting physical fitness and reducing health insurance costs for employers and employees.

"One of the greatest challenges we have is how to incentivise and motivate individuals to be accountable for their own health and well- being," said Mr Steve Beecy of UnitedHealthcare.

He called the Trio Tracker device, introduced with technology partner Qualcomm, "a game-changer". Across the US, employers are stepping up the use of technology in "wellness" programmes that encourage healthier lifestyles.

Wellness programmes are not new, but technology like activity trackers has transformed them with more precise measurements and automated uploads to verify activity.

CARROT AND STICK

One of the greatest challenges we have is how to incentivise and motivate individuals to be accountable for their own health and well- being.

MR STEVE BEECY, from UnitedHealthcare

A survey of over 200 large employers by the National Business Group on Health found that 37 per cent used activity trackers last year and another 37 per cent planned to adopt the technology in coming years.

Makers of activity trackers such as Fitbit and Jawbone have been expanding their efforts to be part of corporate wellness programmes.

One of the biggest tie-ups was announced last year when US retail giant Target said it would offer free or discounted Fitbit trackers to its more than 300,000 employees.

As a further incentive, Target said it would allow teams of employees which log the most average daily steps to collect over US$1 million for local non-profit organisations.

This strategy of providing financial incentives for healthy activity is known in the industry as "gamification."

Mr Jimmy Fleming of consulting group Healthy Wage said financial incentives can make a difference in spurring healthier behaviours.

"We have a lot of clients who want to subsidise the programme and make it free, but it's less effective," Mr Fleming said. "There has to be both a carrot and a stick."

One programme being offered through health services firm Vitality Group provides an Apple Watch for US$25, a fraction of the retail cost. But employees must "pay" for the device by completing workouts and gym visits each month.

Recent growth in such programmes coincides with incentives to meet Obamacare goals on preventive care, and with new research suggesting that more activity can ward off many medical ailments.

But the new programmes raise questions about private data collected and stored by insurers.

While employers and insurers must comply with US privacy regulations so that health data cannot be seen or used by employers, critics still worry.

Mr Bradley Shear, a Washington lawyer specialising in privacy, said: "While some employee wellness programmes and the data collected may be protected under (federal privacy law), others may not be."

A University of Toronto's Citizen Lab report warned of potential problems. For example, there have been cases where fitness tracker-related information was introduced in sexual assault cases or personal injury claims.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2016, with the headline 'Firms in US step up staff health with incentives'. Print Edition | Subscribe