As stakeholders in health care work to build a system designed to prevent rather than treat disease, wellness programs and tools continue to be a major focus in the benefits industry. Here are some strategies for making it work, according to speakers who discussed the topic at Institute 2014 PLUS, the annual gathering of America’s Health Insurance Plans. Square 1: Awareness Engagement is the key to lasting behavior change and measurable ROI, said Nolan Kelly of Linkwell Health, but it won’t happen without awareness and trust. That’s Kelly’s area of specialization, and he urged health plans and other wellness professionals to take a step back and look carefully at members’ lives, defining them beyond simply their medical conditions. “We need to make sure we truly understand the craziness of their lives,” Kelly said. That means family obligations, work stress, relationships, finances and a constant onslaught of marketing messages from all angles. “All of this comes before productive conversations about the nuts and bolts of health care. Flu shot reminders, explanations of benefits, appointments, member portals. These need to find ways to fit into the existing fabric” of members’ lives, Kelly said. Engagement translates to ROI Fitness-tracking devices, health club memberships and other wellness add-ons can serve both as incentives and ways of verifying engagement in wellness plans, said Matthew Bowdy of Humana’s Strategic Communications team, and the results of program engagement are compelling. Although ROI can be difficult to measure, Bowdy’s organization has seen clear benefits to engagement in wellness. Compared with a baseline of fully engaged employees, those who were least engaged with wellness initiatives were 56.3% more likely to be absent from work with monthly claims costs that were $53 higher. Lost productivity is a major financial drain on employers. Chronic conditions are, too, but employees with diabetes and similar diseases who engaged with wellness initiatives saw 60% lower claims costs than similar patients who did not engage. Wearables make it personal “There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach for everyone,” says Fitbit’s Amy McDonough, echoing one of the major themes of the conference. As with many other aspects of health care, the most effective approaches to engagement are personalized, she and others said at the conference. Hence, the wearables boom, which fits neatly into the insurance industry’s efforts to capitalize on Big Data for population health management while delivering member-level customization. Tools like Fitbit allow consumers to “design their own experience” – removing a task from the plates of insurers and providers while also yielding better outcomes for people. Here’s a snapshot of how well a fitness tracking device can work. Simply wearing the device, consumers take 43% more steps in a given day, according to data from Fitbit. Those who connect with a single friend who also wears such a device take an additional 27% more steps, and activity increases as the social circle of people who are monitoring their own activity grows.