What does the future hold for the digital business of health?

Following his keynote speech at G24 – EMEA, Dr Sneh Khemka, VP of Population Health, Aetna International, reflects on the well-being lessons we’re learning that will help us businesses bounce forward and minimise the emotional and mental impact of COVID-19 for employees.

Trust. Stability. Hope. Compassion. These were the buzz words that kept cropping up during the EMEA section of G24. Of course, once upon a time, they wouldn’t have topped the list for words that sprang to mind when talking about a successful leadership culture. But times have changed dramatically, and it’s interesting to see just how quickly COVID-19 has altered our perception of what well-being at work really looks like. From how to balance a home-life blend that might incorporate both full-time working and home-schooling several children, to just how high up the agenda mental health needs to be if we want the teams we are leading to be productive, motivated and purposeful, our way of looking at health and well-being has undergone a profound shift in a very short amount of time.

For forward-thinking businesses, well-being at work starts with getting the right in-house support and that means giving equal weighting to both physical and mental health. Gone are the days when positive mental health services were seen by employers as a last-minute bolt-on. Now, we’re seeing and understanding an appetite for a separate line of services that can meet diverse employee needs at different stages.

As a health benefits company, this drive to meet diverse need is what inspires us to keep exploring new partnerships, and discover the best digital therapeutics to offer to customers. Certainly there is a well-documented need for scalable digital tools at this time. To put it into context, our parent organisation in America, CVS Health, has seen more than a 60% increase in take-up of our primary care virtual health service for physical health and GP advice. You might expect a figure like this, given the restrictions of lockdown and the potential reticence to sit in a waiting room during a pandemic. Mental health requests, on the other hand, have increased by c3000% in telemedicine consults for behavioural health – a figure that can only be described as simply astounding. The nature of these calls have also changed with much more ‘in the moment’ immediate distress evident from things like financial conversations to alcohol dependencies and sadly domestic abuse. This goes some way to validate both the desperate need for support and the manner in which people are asking for it to be delivered.

One of the fascinating things to consider is how well so many medical needs, mental or physical, can actually be addressed without being physically in front of a practitioner. I’d estimate this to be in excess of 60%. It therefore makes complete sense to incorporate more accessible, cheaper, lighter models of delivery into the traditional primary care system as well as help get us in front of the patient when needed. This is precisely what the digital environment allows us to do.

Helping people recognise what kind of support is needed is one of the places we try to add value for our members. Is it an emotional need, requiring resilience training because people are feeling vulnerable to anxiety? Or has this gone beyond every day stress and we’re now looking at depression and potentially medical intervention? With mental health, for example, you might feel some self-help guidance is appropriate to begin with, perhaps some videos or an online course. The next level of help could be a talking therapy with a trained counsellor or coach via text chat or one-to-one over video. Then, at the top of the pyramid is when you actually need to see someone.

We’ve been looking at the best ways to bridge this spectrum of need for some time, and felt that, amidst the significant pressures of COVID-19, it was imperative we offered increased support for the stresses people are facing now and in the longer term. There’s no doubt, after all, that we’ll be going through many phases of adaptation and challenge as we navigate to a new normal. Aligning with Mental Health Awareness Week in May, we introduced a new partnership with Wysa, a leading mental well-being service which we hope will support members and employees wherever they are in their well-being journey.

It’s early days but we’re excited about the possibility Wysa offers in catering for requirements and flattening the ‘second curve’ of COVID-19 – the mental and emotional impact of the pandemic. Offering immediate and confidential support, our goal is that it will support a path to better health. The current trajectory of our journey may be currently somewhat unknown, but it certainly seems that the future includes digital therapeutic tools that will support people in the way they want it and triaging them across their spectrum of need.

For more information, please visit aetnainternational.com

Dr Sneh Khemka

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