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How employers can positively impact population health

Employers are seeing the increasing value of population health management. Maintaining a healthy workplace can help influence the success of your business, including controlling claim costs and reducing absenteeism while keeping your employees healthier and happier.

Ellen Beckjord, PhD, MPH, Associate Vice President of Population Health and Clinical Transformation at UPMC Health Plan, focuses her work on the use of digital tools from the clinical side to promote health, wellness, and health behavior change. She shares her advice below about why it is critical for employers to continue moving their population health management efforts forward in this exclusive Q&A.

Tell us a little about yourself and what you do at UPMC.
I’m a licensed clinical psychologist and have worked in the health care field since 1999. I’m an epidemiologist, and I did my post-doctoral work in digital health and informatics. When you put those three things together you get close to population health management. I came to UPMC Health Plan because it was a place to do work in health behavior change and digital health in big populations. At UPMC Health Plan, we believe making health-related needs, goals, and values achievable for everyone and making health—not just health care and health services—accessible everywhere all the time.
What is population health?
There are many definitions of population health management, but a good way to think about it is as the answer to these three questions:
  1. Who needs services?
  2. What services do they need?
  3. How should those services be delivered?
There have been a lot of constraints around “how” historically, but health insurers are beginning to have diversity in our service delivery toolbox, especially when it comes to technology. This method allows us to deliver services at a bigger scale without sacrificing personalization. It is also increasing the way our members want to receive services.

Nationally, health care services are more frequently being integrated into community settings. That means you may not have to go to a brick-and-mortar facility to get a health-related service. You might be able to get it in your home from telehealth or in a community-based organization, like a community engagement center.
How can I contribute to making a healthy environment for my employees?
Given that obesity is the number one modifiable cost driver related to health, creating an environment that helps your employees attain and maintain a healthy weight can have a great impact on your business. Offering a wellness program can encourage employees to eat healthier and be more physically active, whether they are working on-site or from home.

Employers can also do amazing things by addressing behavioral health, destigmatizing behavioral health, and giving people time to engage in services related to taking care of their behavioral health, including mental health and addiction.

Supporting employees with children is also critical in creating a health-promoting environment. One of the ways to do this is for employers to determine whether your maternal and paternal leave-related policies are truly supportive of your employees’ needs.

Access to care is another area you should carefully consider when creating your population health strategy. Answering questions like these can help you assess the current level of access and how to increase it:
  • Do you provide access to basic primary care?
  • Do you encourage your employees to use telehealth services to access care?
  • Do you incentivize employees to have an annual wellness visit to set health-related goals and create a plan to achieve them with the support of a health care professional?
How has COVID-19 complicated population health management?
The severity of the pandemic and its impact on health has brought behavioral health out of the shadows. It has elevated the conversation on population health to an imperative needed to create a culture of health.

A lot of the levers that you have around creating a culture of health are tied to the physical manifestation of your employment space. Those levers become moot when employees work from home, but policy instruments come into play. The degree to which you have policies that are health promoting, even absent of a physical work environment, can go a long way in creating a culture of health. You can evaluate your commitment to a culture of health by answering these questions:
  • What are your policies around family and medical leave?
  • Do you utilize policies and programs that encourage employees to be physically active?
  • Are your policies about when and how people work flexible?
What differentiates UPMC Health Plan from other health insurers offering population health management?
UPMC Health Plan is part of an integrated health care system with UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh Schools of Health Sciences. This alignment allows us to bring the most current evidence-based practices to our population health management strategy, which informs our analytic models, service delivery models, and our aggressive foray into digitally enabled and community integrated care. We are also one of only three health plans in the nation with a health coach certification program. This is important because health coaching is a powerful tool to promote a culture of health for offsite and on-site employees.

UPMC Health Plan’s impact on population health

The goal of our population health management efforts is to put health-related needs, goals, and values within equal reach for everyone—and to help them succeed no matter how far away that reach may be.

Our Good Health, Better World podcast series centers around “social determinants of health” and builds upon the community-based health initiatives launched by the UPMC Center for Social Impact. By increasing awareness and understanding of the social issues that directly impact health outcomes, we can continue making a difference.

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