Technology in health care Featured

10:59am EDT February 28, 2006
Not always recognized as the most technology-savvy sector, health care is coming into its own when it comes to using technology to improve the customer experience, create more efficient delivery systems and lower costs for both employers and employees. As an industry, health care is now working toward a more streamlined, automated way of doing business.

“The health insurance industry has traditionally been slow to adopt technology, both for its members and its client employers,” says Michael Taylor, executive director of marketing and communications at UPMC Health Plan in Pittsburgh. “Now, we’re seeing signs that the industry is more focused on embracing technology and using it for the betterment of employers, doctors and consumers.”

Smart Business spoke with Taylor about new ways that technology is being applied in the health care field.

How can a health plan use technology to improve the consumer experience?
There’s no question that an informed consumer can help as a cost-saving mechanism. Knowing this, we’re trying to deliver as much information to consumers as possible, whether it’s information on healthy lifestyles, or on the highest quality doctors and hospitals.

Traditionally, a health plan provides information through a paper directory or some other offline publication. But an even better option is through an interactive tool, like a Web site. Through a consumer-centric site that includes tools and information, the industry can help consumers find the most appropriate doctors and hospitals for the procedure or condition they are trying to treat.

The consumer experience can also be improved by providing access to pertinent benefit information, such as status of recent claims, an explanation of benefits, or by employing convenient, real-time payment mechanisms like debit cards that enable integrated payment from the member’s flexible spending or health saving accounts.

Can technology provide a cost-saving mechanism for consumers and employers?
Yes. Health plans have been working on technologies — such as innovative mechanisms to pay claims quickly or manage call centers efficiently — for the last few years. A newer cost-saving approach is to use technology that eliminates barriers to care. One way is by allowing consumers to directly interact with their doctors, and for doctors to have access to health plan information.

The insurer’s role no longer is to impose itself on the doctor-patient relationship; rather it’s to be the consumer’s advocate and help them get the right care, in the right amount, at the right time. Positive outreach to both consumers and providers — and employing streamlined technology to facilitate this — is where the industry is headed.

How can technology make members better health-care consumers?
Through a Web site, for example, members can access specific information about their plans by logging in with a user name and password. As a consumer, I can get information pushed to me that is specific to my situation and my benefit plan.

If I’ve been newly diagnosed with a chronic condition, like diabetes or asthma, I’m able to sign onto the Web site and get pertinent information via the push delivery system. This is a very overt use of technology using a Web site. Other, simpler means involve Webcasts or e-mails that are customized for a specific condition or health topic.

How can a health plan use technology to benefit employers?
By getting people more engaged in their health care through technology. An employer might implement an incentive program that drives employees to a Web site where they fill out an online health risk assessment. Members take about 30 minutes to complete the profile, which includes demographic and health information about them and their family.

The technology then crunches the data and shows what types of health conditions the member is at risk for. These numbers can then be taken in aggregate to gauge the overall health of the employer’s work force.

Specific workplace health promotion programs, such as smoking cessation or diabetes management, can be tailored based on these group results. Not every employee will take time to fill out the survey, but by instituting an incentive program, the employer can increase the number of participants.

How can employers get employees onboard with health-plan related technology?
Regular communication is key. Many times employers send out benefits communications once a year, typically just before the start of a new plan year. A better strategy is to spread that communication out through the year.

This can be achieved through technology (e-mail, Webcast, streaming video, etc.) and will go a long way toward activating employees to engage in their health care. Keeping health care top-of-mind with employees is the key.

Michael Taylor is executive director of marketing and communications at UPMC Health Plan in Pittsburgh. Reach Taylor at (412) 454-7534 or