Managing employee healthcare strategically
Written by Pamela Gellatly, Chief Executive, Healthcare RM
When Dame Carol Black first put absenteeism on the UK Government’s agenda in 2008, the market for employee health and wellbeing services really took hold. Over the last three years, we have seen huge investment in this area as employers seek to manage sickness absence better and improve employee health.
Despite this interest and investment, much of it misses the point. Employers have been too focused on treating the symptoms of workplace ill-health, instead of the causes. By failing to address the underlying causative and contributory factors affecting the ill health, such as lack of appropriate exercise and poor nutrition, these absence management processes and healthcare benefits are costly, may drive inappropriate treatments and fail to resolve the health problem.
Another issue is that the healthcare industry traditionally operates in silos. Providers sell and employers buy in silos. As a result, the HR, health and safety and occupational health departments are all purchasing products to meet their needs, but rarely working together at a wider strategic level. Even providers that claim to integrate benefits fail to really integrate the actual management of the clinical, occupational, financial and legal aspects of ill health.
What are the employee health risks?
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has revealed that approximately 80 percent of all ill-health costs are due to musculoskeletal and mental health disorders. Indeed, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD), such disorders are the top two causes and account for half of all sickness absence.
Musculoskeletal and mental health issues, however, are often inefficiently managed both within the NHS and by the private sector, with patients often waiting many weeks for treatment, despite evidence that early intervention is crucial to a successful recovery. While medical professionals have traditionally been trained to identify and treat only the physical (for musculoskeletal disorders) and psychological (mental health) aspects of these conditions, clinical research into workplace absence has shown that with both conditions there are often other personal, more complex factors which require attention and management.
Poor lifestyle choices not only impact an individual’s susceptibility to mental health and musculoskeletal disorders but they also significantly increase the likelihood of diabetes, cancer, heart disease and other serious illness. Failure to address issues such as nutrition and corrective exercise can lead to poor performance, long term absence and increased costs for employers. So what can employers do to mitigate these risks?
Promote a healthier lifestyle
Organisations need to develop a proactive approach to health management, to move away from a focus on sickness and encourage employees to take responsibility for their own health. Half or more cases of mental ill health or musculoskeletal disorders can be addressed by encouraging individuals to resolve musculoskeletal imbalances, adopt active lifestyles and improve their diet.
Supporting improvements in employees’ health should be focused on adopting an organisational culture which actively promotes regular exercise, a good diet and a sensible alcohol intake. This can be done at relatively low cost through sponsored sports events, creating competitions between teams, departments or sites or setting up a lunchtime walking club. Assigning ‘health champions’ can also make a real difference and help generate buy-in from employees, as can ‘job specific’ exercise programmes and stress-coping strategies.
Those employers who find innovative ways to support their people in making small lifestyle changes will reap the most rewards. Not only will absence rates decline but the costs associated with providing health benefits should reduce substantially over the long term and employees should be happier, healthier and more productive.
Integrating employee healthcare benefits and services
At the strategic level, organisations need to develop a more holistic view to employee healthcare. Health and wellbeing services, including EAPs, carelines, private healthcare insurance, case management, screening and occupational health rehabilitation, for example, need to be integrated and managed collectively. Purchasing several ‘products’ from one provider does not equal integration.
Healthcare RM takes works with clients such as TUI Travel and Britvic Soft Drinks to deliver a number of strategic and competitive advantages. It simplifies and improves the service for line managers, employees and their families, by providing a single point of contact for all health matters. It also provides better outcomes for employees by eliminating mixed messages, minimising conflict of advice and avoiding unnecessary cost shifting into the private sector. More effective management of the clinical, lifestyle and occupational factors associated with ill health and injury in turn reduces costs for the employer.
With health risks continuing to spiral out of control, this puts impossible demands on the NHS and ultimately places an even greater burden on employers. Those without a health risk management strategy would be wise to reconsider.
Case study - TUI Travel
One example of a UK organisation reaping the strategic benefits of healthcare is travel firm, TUI Travel. The company appointed Healthcare RM to integrate all existing healthcare management services and to plug any gaps in provision. This joined-up approach enables TUI Travel to incorporate all employee healthcare benefits, initiatives and legal obligations in one package. Group reward director at TUI Travel, David House explains: “We expect it to pay for itself within a year. Normally employers run healthcare benefits in isolation, but we have mitigated costs by combining them.”
Healthcare RM has teamed up with The Adventure Company to offer clients an alternative fitness and stress reduction programme:
NHS trials test that predicts sepsis 3 days in advance
A new test that can predict sepsis before the patient develops symptoms is being trialled at a National Health Service (NHS) hospital in the south of England.
Clinicians at Portsmouth’s Queen Alexandra Hospital are leading medical trials of the blood test, which they hope will help them save thousands of lives a year.
The test is being developed by government spin-out company Presymptom Health, but the research began over 10 years ago at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl). This included a study of 4,385 patients and more than 70,000 samples, the largest study of its kind at the time.
From the samples taken, a clinical biobank and database were generated and then mined using machine learning to identify biomarker signatures that could predict the onset of sepsis. The researchers found they were able to provide an early warning of sepsis up to three days ahead of illness with an accuracy of up to 90%.
Unlike most other tests, Presymptom Health identifies the patient’s response to the disease as opposed to detecting the pathogen. This is an important differentiator, as sepsis occurs as a result of the patient's immune system’s overreaction to an infection or injury, which can then cause life-threatening organ dysfunction.
Worldwide, an estimated 49 million people a year contract sepsis, while in the UK almost two million patients admitted to hospital each year are thought to be at risk of developing the condition. If Presymptom's test is effective, it could save billions of pounds globally and improve clinical outcomes for millions of sepsis patients.
The initial trials at Queen Alexandra Hospital will last 12 months, with two other sites planned to go live this summer. Up to 600 patients admitted to hospital with respiratory tract infections will be given the option to participate in the trial. The data collected will be independently assessed and used to refine and validate the test, which could be available for broader NHS use within two years.
If successful, this test could also identify sepsis arising from other infections before symptoms appear, which could potentially include future waves of COVID-19 and other pandemics.
Dr Roman Lukaszewski, the lead Dstl scientist behind the innovation, said: “It is incredible to see this test, which we had originally begun to develop to help service personnel survive injury and infection on the front line, is now being used for the wider UK population, including those fighting COVID-19.”