#MercerChats Rewind: 10 Observations on Digital Health during the Pandemic and Beyond

#MercerChats Rewind: Redesigning the Work Experience in the Future of Work

Each month, Mercer brings together in-house experts and external thought leaders, subject matter experts and influencers for an online discussion of the most pressing issues in the future of work and health. The program is called #MercerChats and takes place entirely on Twitter, where individuals around the world engage with Mercer’s intellectual capital and other leading thought leadership to share insights and discuss the best solutions to help organizations thrive. Below is a summary of our May 2020 tweet chat, highlighting some of the key themes discussed and the best insights shared.

Nothing stokes public and employers’ interest in wellness and healthcare systems like a global pandemic. Over the first half of 2020, we’ve seen an explosion in thoughtful discussion and consideration about what it means to be healthy, the role all parties play in individual and community wellness, and new innovations that can accelerate our journey to a more health-focused society.

Throughout this and the COVID-19 pandemic, digital health looms large. Telemedicine has been fundamental to diagnosing and managing care during the earliest stages of the Coronavirus spread; data and digital mapping have been instrumental in tracking the virus’ spread; and attention to mental health is at an all-time high due to the anxieties and burdens of the pandemic. By almost any measure, it’s safe to say that digital health has never been as important as it’s been in the last several months.

But what can be expected in the months and years ahead? Digital health, which for years has been touted as an emerging solution, may have finally broken into the mainstream of the health industry. 76% of employers believe digital health energizes their employees, and 40% of employees say digital health solutions are a factor in them staying with their current employer, according to our Health on Demand research. The question is whether employers and healthcare systems around the world will embrace the pivot to digital or revert to traditional health solutions.

This conversation happens every day at Mercer, where we work with clients to develop employee wellness solutions and benefits packages all around the world. But given these extraordinary times, we invited Mercer experts and external social media influencers together to have a discussion of what’s happening in digital health now and where it’s going in the future of work. Below are 10 key takeaways from the conversation:

1. The world is shifting to digital, and healthcare should too

The global pandemic is forcing employers’ hands and making them adapt to a new digital business landscape. Millions of workers have had to adapt to organizations going remote overnight, and employers are finding that they are capable of adapting and innovating to help their workforce function and thrive during these unprecedented times.  

While healthcare is just one part of this story, it’s vital that employers bring their wellbeing programs along with them on the same digital transformation that employee experience is undergoing. As Glen Gilmore shared, employers should turn to digital health to ensure a continuity of care if they want their employee benefits to have the same impact in the new digital working environment.

2. Disruption is coming to healthcare

AI and machine learning have been business buzzwords for a decade, and the health sciences has been on the frontline of applying the latest tech to the most difficult problems. It’s time for the rest of the healthcare industry to make a leap into the digital future by applying technology on a broader scale. Jim Nostra pointed out that AI has the potential to transform doctor-patient interactions and deliver a higher quality of overall care. As every industry and function around the world is pairing artificial intelligence with human skills to deliver better value, it’s time for healthcare to do the same.  

3. Consumer expectations have changed

Embracing digital health is more than a matter of keeping up with the latest tech and other industries. It means keeping up with people’s expectations. Digital interactions have gone from a manner of convenience to a necessity in the last five years, and consumers now expect access to any product or service via a digital platform. Consider how mobile banking has fundamentally transformed the financial industry. Isn’t it time that same evolution came to healthcare?

As Tracy Watts noted, the market is ripe for digital healthcare solutions that can deliver quality care efficiently, and both healthcare providers and employers should actively search for ways to meet the demand.

4. Digital health can lead you to other innovations

Even if employee health and wellness programs are currently lagging behind in the digital transformation journey, they hold so much promise as a laboratory for modernization and growth. Digital health solutions rely heavily on the same tools and concepts that are vital to delivering a modern and engaging employee experience (i.e. gamification, community building, and personalization), so most employers should either be familiar with how to best leverage them in their workforce or keen to find out. In our chat, Mercer’s Amy Laverock called attention to this overlap and noted that some of these engagement tools can be more effective than financial incentives. 

5. Digital health helps you take time back

Whether in normal times or during a pandemic, the one thing every leader needs more of is time. This is one of the great promises of digital health and wellbeing programs, and it’s far too often overlooked. During our chat, Lisa Lint astutely called attention to the fact that not only does a digitally integrated healthcare system save time when accessing care, it allows greater flexibility and permits people to use their PTO in the manner that it’s intended. The result is better care, less time away from work, decreased burnout, and higher success rates. 

6. Digital health can do wonders for culture

Culture is top of mind for every HR professional, but it’s often difficult to distill an intangible concept like culture down to practices and policies. Luckily, Christina Dove did just that during our event when she drew a link between digital health and culture. Through proactive communication and authentic leadership, employers can build an environment where health and wellbeing is top of mind for employees, which in turn fosters a culture where people matter. 

7. The biggest barrier to digital health is the access to digital health

If the tech is there and case for digital health has been made, there’s still the problem of actually putting it into effect. This has been the consistent hang-up for digital health programs, and is largely responsible for the common dismissal of digital health as the “next big thing” that never comes to fruition.

But as Dr. Nick van Terheyden laid out in our chat, the slow uptake on digital health has nothing to do with its usefulness and everything to do with availability. For years, digital health has failed to take hold because it was an afterthought or secondary option to in-person care. Now, with the en masse pivot to remote connections, employers, healthcare providers, and patients are finally turning to digital health as a preferred solution. 

8. Better systems equal better care

Healthcare systems are just that, systems, and to improve a system you can’t focus on just one component. That’s why the promise of digital health is so enticing; it improves the patient experience throughout the entire journey. As Denise Silber notes, telemedicine saves time, facilitates treatment, and reduces stress and inefficiencies in receiving care. This secure, streamlined process is a benefit under normal conditions, but it’s absolutely essential under a pandemic. 

9. Mental health is an inextricable part of wellbeing

In 2020, no employee wellbeing program focuses purely on physical health. As the Health on Demand research shows, nearly half (48%) of senior decision makers want mental health counseling via video chat, and attention to mental wellness has only increased since the COVID-19 pandemic has left millions around the world stressed, overburdened, and isolated from traditional support networks. Donna K. Lencki addressed this during our chat, pointing out that leadership needs to continue prioritizing mental health in order to support workers. 

10. Don’t forget that healthcare is about people

At the end of the day, healthcare is personal, and employers must recognize that. Even if digital health does lead to greater efficiencies and lower costs, it’s important that organizations stay focused on what it means for people. Tamara McCleary spoke to this during our chat when she pointed on that people – especially now – need benefits that give them access to the care they need, day in and day out. There’s no better metric for success than that. 

Danielle Guzman
by Danielle Guzman

Global Head of Social Media