Roundup: Digital health payer news of Q1 2018

By Dave Muoio
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Digital health-focused news from payers during the first quarter of 2018 generally focused on employee wellness and app-focused member engagement strategies, with a handful of similar partnerships or deals announced around the edges. These came from a number of major players, including UnitedHealthcare, Aetna, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Fitbit, and a variety of other payers and digital health companies.

Employee wellness, chronic care

Employee wellness-focused apps and services continue to be an area of interest for digital health-minded payers. In early February, wellness program technology firm Vitality Group announced the launch of its Gateway program, a series of partnerships that brings digital chronic care, mental health care, and other wellness offerings to its US corporate membership.

Through the program, employee members will gain access to seven health companies’ offerings: Vida Health, a digital chronic care coaching company; Headspace, a meditation and mental health-focused app; Happify Health, a series of digitally-delivered wellness activities and lifestyle education materials; Zipongo, a nutrition and dieting app; eHealthScreenings, a biometric screening and data specialist; US Preventive Medicine, a population health-focused; and Wellness Corporate Solutions, a provider of various wellness-based services.

Around the same time, Merck subsidiary StayWell, which offers a preventative health platform for employers, health plans, and health systems, acquired Provata Health for an undisclosed sum. A digital health platform for employee wellness, Provata’s platform is notable for its chronic disease management program that pairs with a connected scale and blood pressure monitor; a lifestyle management platform that incorporates an activity tracker; and a mental health platform that works with a VR headset.

StayWell CEO Nicole Latimer told MobiHealthNews at the time that purchasing these capabilities, as opposed to developing them in-house, was important because “many of the health plans we’ve been working with have been asking for mobile capabilities, so it’s important to have that now rather than in a few years.”

A stronger push toward a wellness-focused business model was also the heart of another February acquisition, this one involving the consumer wearable giant Fitbit and healthcare coaching platform Twine Health. By incorporating the latter’s efforts in chronic condition management and lifestyle interventions, the acquisition is expected to help Fitbit expand its offerings to health plans and self-insured employers, and subsequently increase subscription-based revenue, according to a statement.

But Fitbit isn’t the only wearable being featured in employee wellness programs. In March, UnitedHealthcare announced that Apple Watches would be the latest devices supported as part of its UnitedHealthcare Motion program, allowing participants in the program to obtain the watch nearly for free. With this, UnitedHealthcare follows in the footsteps of Aetna, which has been offering some members free Apple Watches since September 2016.

Member engagement and apps

Early in the quarter, San Francisco-based Amino, which has offered a consumer-facing cost and quality transparency tool since 2015, announced the launch its own Health Savings Account (HSA) and debit card. The new offerings would be integrated with cost and quality transparency tools surfaced by the Amino app, allowing members to better engage with and access their payment options within a single interface.

Speaking of apps, this January saw WellDoc’s digital diabetes management therapeutic, Bluestar, emerge as a diabetes management option for those perusing the Solera Health Marketplace. In a statement, Solera CEO Brenda Schmidt said that the digital therapeutic company was “an ideal partner” in the former’s mission to bring digital chronic disease management programs to patients, payers, and physicians.Solera had previously announced a partnership with Yes Health, another mobile diabetes prevention program, in 2016.

On the other hand, MobiHealthNews learned last month that iTriage, a symptom checker app that was one of the earliest successful exits in the digital health space, and the revamped iTriage Essentials had been removed from the Apple App Store and Google Play Store by Aetna to make room for a new mobile offering called Aetna Health. Firdaus Bhathena, Aetna’s Head of Digital Products, told MobiHealthNews that the insurer’s various digital offerings were confusing members, and that housing each within a single flagship app is more in-line with the company’s consumer-focused efforts.

Keeping things simple for the member seemed to be a common trend, with Welltok launching a new platform focused on efficient, accurate, and less confusing communications from payer to patients. EngageME looks to better coordinate communications from separate departments that normally would be blind to each other’s outreach, and can scan different patient demographics to identify any that may be receiving an overload, or a dearth, of messaging.

Other member-focused news this quarter included smart inhaler maker Adherium’s hints of direct-to-payer (as well as direct-to-consumer) market plans in the US, and an announcement that Cigna would be implementing Catasys’ OnTrak system to identify and engage population members with behavioral health conditions.

Payer partnerships

UnitedHealthcare and Dexcom announced at CES in Las Vegas that they would collaborate on a pilot program to provide Dexcom CGMs to UnitedHealthcare Medicare Advantage plan participants. Participants in the program will be given both a Dexcom CGM and a Fitbit device, as well as a personalized coaching app that will help them to understand their readings and adjust their behavior accordingly. In a statement, CEO of UnitedHealthcare Medicare and retirement Brian Thompson said that personalized data from the monitoring could be a “game changer” for those enrolled in the plans.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona (BCBSAZ) also announced a partnership with Boston-based American Well to offer new telehealth options to its members. Through the BlueCare Anywhere program, patients can use their phones or devices to connect to providers. The service will be available within three areas of care — medical, counseling, and psychiatry — and will cover common ailments like allergies, strep throat, anxiety, depression, and eating disorders.

Finally, Samsung, Travelers Insurance, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Bayer, and AppliedVR announced a partnership during HIMSS 2018 to explore the effectiveness of virtual reality treatments for pain management. Samsung and Travelers will be funding the 16-month study, which will include somewhere between 90 and 140 patients.

“Identifying new, non-pharmacologic alternatives for pain management can help an injured employee avoid chronic pain, lower the chances that they will develop a dangerous opioid addiction and reduce medical costs,” Dr. Melissa Burke, national pharmacy director at Travelers, said in a statement at the time. “We are grateful for this partnership and look forward to seeing the results that Dr. Brennan Spiegel and the Cedars-Sinai team uncover using the latest technology from AppliedVR, Bayer and Samsung.”