Harmonizing patient outcomes and employer health strategies

Funded by the Affordable Care Act, the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute has provided significant research support to increase the understanding of patient-centered healthcare outcomes. As a result, patient-centric results have become a growing priority for healthcare practitioners and researchers. For employers and HR leaders, inclusion of patient-centered outcomes in benefits planning can serve to expand focus beyond healthcare costs and to include broader measures of organizational value. Given that employers are a key part of the healthcare system in the U.S.–covering nearly 60% of all non-elderly adults–how are they incorporating consideration of patient-centric priorities and outcomes into their health management offerings?

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To answer this question, the Integrated Benefits Institute and the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions surveyed 200 employers on these issues during late 2019. Our main findings? That patient-centered needs are important goals of employer health programs and employers; that employers tend to focus internally–both with data and expertise–in making decisions; and that employers don’t believe that their current health programs are effectively meeting patient- centered needs. Another surprising finding: That there’s a disconnect between employer patient-centered goals and the type of data employers use to judge success.

Connecting the disconnects

The research emphasizes that employer health program aspirations are somewhat detached from their planning realities. So what can employers do to better harmonize them? Here are four approaches that can help employers align their interests in patient-centered outcomes more effectively with their benefits planning objectives.

Expand the internal focus. Benefits personnel are undoubtedly well-intentioned, wanting the best both for their employees and their businesses. However, at a population level, eliciting the perspectives and needs of employees can inform more impactful benefits planning. Surveys or focus groups can be invaluable in the process of information gathering. By engaging in a strategy of mutual discovery, employers can convey their business priorities while gaining a better understanding of employee priorities and desires.

Integrate data strategies. For the most part, employers house their data in separate, unlinked program silos–healthcare in one place, pharmacy in another, employee assistance programs in a third, absence/disability in a fourth and workers’ compensation/risk management in a fifth. To appreciate the broader impact of strategic health management planning, employers will benefit from integrating disparate data sets to better evaluate both employee and organizational impacts.

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Our survey findings indicate that while medical and pharmacy claims data are often used by the vast majority of employers, significantly fewer incorporate measures of absence, disability, risk management or employee surveys into their evaluation and analytics processes. Doing so can help to more effectively align patient-centered needs and outcomes with organizational goals, allowing employers to more fully judge the full impact of their interventions.

Broaden the understanding of health program impacts and evaluation. In the face of HIPAA and ERISA, most health benefits offerings are managed by third-party vendors that routinely collect data regarding program costs and outcomes. Yet the lens through which those vendors may view results is strongly impacted by their business focus, as well as available data. Employers will benefit from engaging with their vendors to incorporate broader, employee- and business-relevant data in order to better understand the broader impact of health benefits offerings, on such factors as illness-related absence, employee health and well-being status, as well as workplace performance and impacts on operational business performance.

Shift from cost to value in judging success. As a human capital asset, the workforce health represents a focus for investment in organizational performance. From this perspective, businesses can shift from viewing benefits as a line item expense to incorporate patient-centered outcomes as an additional source of business value. To achieve this goal, the internal focus must extend from healthcare costs to encompass the patient-centered outcomes of employee productivity and performance as likely cost offsets to benefits expenditures. Only then will employers have a clearer understanding of patient-centered outcomes–and the broader organizational impact of their strategic planning efforts.

By adopting a broader perspective that incorporates patient-centered needs and outcomes along with business-related measures, employers can take significant strides toward a better alignment of employee health and wellbeing outcomes with their health strategies and ultimate business goals.

Thomas Parry, PhD and Bruce Sherman, MD
Thomas Parry, PhD, is president of the Integrated Benefits Institute, a health and productivity research organization. Bruce Sherman, MD, is medical adviser for the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions, a membership organization of purchaser-led healthcare coalitions.