Safeway helps other employers strategize about health data, behavior change

By Jonah Comstock
06:24 am
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BradleySafeway Health president Dr. Kent Bradley believes healthcare data has arrived. The challenge now for stakeholders, especially employers, is to figure out how to use that data meaningfully.

Safeway Health entered the health market in an unusual way. In 2010, the grocery store chain Safeway was getting so much attention for its novel approaches to employee wellness that the company spun off Safeway Health, a wholly owned subsidiary that now offers services and platforms to other employers to improve health at their own companies.

"It’s one of those things where you don’t necessarily know how progressive you are because you’re just internally doing what you need to do until it bubbles up into national attention, and you recognize 'I guess we are ahead of the pack in some of our thinking'," Bradley told MobiHealthNews on the sidelines of Health 2.0 this week. "And then the lightbulb went off, if we're really differentiated, maybe there’s an offering there that could benefit others and maybe be successful as a business."

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Four years in, Safeway Health is still going strong. Bradley says an important learning of that business is to stick to core principles that work, while being willing to iterate the specifics as technology advances. Bradley thinks the central tenets of good employee health savings are corollaries to the triple aim, the popular idea that healthcare innovation should improve patient care, improve population health, and reduce costs.

"Safeway did our own introspection and came up with what I call it the 'triple insight' from an employer perspective," he said. "And from an employer perspective, those insights were healthcare costs were concentrated [in] a small percentage of the population; behavior was a key cause of conditions and therefore we needed a focus on lifestyle and behavior and that incentives, when properly designed, could, in fact, drive behavior change and improve health. And then the third was that, we had this understanding that we needed to have a marketplace and individuals had to be empowered and be able to make thoughtful decisions around their healthcare like they would other things in life."

He pointed to Safeway's market price drug program as an example of a marketplace approach that empowers and educates patients to save money. Safeway generally won't pay for a drug unless it's the cheapest therapeutic equivalent; if the patient wants a different drug, they can choose to pay the difference. A patient's doctor can also make a case for the more expensive medication if an exception is necessary. This creates a cost-sharing relationship that incentivizes the patient to scrutinize their healthcare choices, and ultimately saves the employer money without affecting health outcomes.

As technology advances, Bradley stressed two things: the importance of keeping those core insights central and the importance of being critical about how we engage with new technology. For instance, our data collection capabilities have outpaced our insights into how to use that data effectively, he said.

"There are devices that are out there, that don’t require us to input the data, it’s just available about you," he said. "I think that takes the burden from the individual, but with it comes the burden of trying to make meaning from that data in a way that’s actionable and accurate -- having an impact on an individuals' health and wellbeing. So, the biggest thing that I see is how the infrastructure has developed, so that the possibility of realtime data on you as an individual has been the biggest advancement. And I think the big opportunity is figuring out what to do with all that data in a way that’s interesting and impactful."

Going forward, companies need to decide what their relationship with their employees' health looks like, as well. Some will be content to just let their employees pay into a plan, while others will want to manage patients' health closely to keep costs down. For the latter group, more tools exist than ever before, including offerings like Safeway's.

"I think that the number of people that are at [the Health 2.0] conference, the technology that is being displayed is all great and is an indication of how quickly we are maturing," Bradley said. "I think that it has to be coupled with a desire and a will to make changes on an organizational level, and it has to fit in to an overall strategy for an organization on how they’re going to be viewed and how they want to enable the technology to whatever they’re doing. And the final thing is that the technology will have very little impact if it isn't thoughtfully applied and part of an overall construct that will be impactful and integrated into whatever an organization is doing, whether it’s a healthcare system, an employer, or a health insurer."

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