UnitedHealth developing employee wellness-connected, healthy vending machine

By Aditi Pai
08:29 am
Existing UnitedHealthCare tool Existing UnitedHealthCare tool

At the HxRefactored event in Boston last week, UnitedHealth Group Vice President of Innovation and R&D Kunjorn Chambundabongse discussed the strategy behind the payor's internal incubation group and revealed one of the group's newest projects, a vending machine that will sync up with employee wellness plans.

Chambundabongse said that, according to IDC, one third of the top 20 companies in every US industry will be disrupted over the next 10 years by something they call "the third platform", which is: cloud, mobile, big data, social, and internet of things.

"Basically what I interpret that to be is, today, every company is a software company whether they realize it or not," Chambundabongse said. "And that’s why we see companies like Uber disrupting a nonsoftware-based transportation industry; Airbnb disrupting a hospitality and lodging industry; and even, to a certain aspect, companies like Tesla, which makes cars -- hardware -- but at their heart, they’re a software company. The cars, and the experience you have with the cars, operate very much like the phone — it automatically downloads new updates and updates itself."

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He explained that this trend extends to healthcare, too. In the incubation group he leads, which they internally call "the Garage", the team looks for opportunities to apply the five platforms to healthcare so they can create new products and services for members. 

"We basically have a portfolio today of about 17 new ideas in various stages," Chambundabongse said. "We start with that initial research phase which typically runs for about three months, and then we move things into minimal viable product (MVP) where we actually build, generally off-brand -- not attached to our major UnitedHealth Group brands -- and we release them in a very limited market to test... We’re trying to build startups and when we’re in these adjacent spaces outside the core of our businesses, there’s a lot of uncertainty."

One of the markets that his group is exploring is food and nutrition. He explained that although wellness is an important topic in healthcare right now and large insurance companies tell their members that they need to eat better, they don’t provide useful or practical help to do so.

"An example of what we have is a company called Nourish that we’re starting," Chambundabongse said. "Basically it’s a new take on vending. Typical vending machines are filled with chips and candy and, at best, gas station-quality sandwiches. Not very good for you, but very convenient. While some vending machines take credit cards and things like that, the technology is still a bit far behind. What we’re exploring is smarter technology that uses RFID inside the machines to make it even less of an effort to check out something. You simply swipe your card, the door unlocks, as soon as you close the door it recognizes automatically what you've taken, and then charges your card."

Inside the machine that they are testing, the team placed wholesome snacks and full meals. Chambundabongse emphasized that it isn't meant to be diet food, but balanced food that a registered dietitian worked with chefs to create. The team aims to put these vending machines in places where people spend most of their days -- their workplace. He added that UnitedHealth Group's two main businesses, UnitedHealthcare and Optum, have very large channels to reach employers throughout the country.

"What we want to do then is, using big data and other technologies, incorporate [the machines] into wellness programs so that you can be rewarded for repeat purchases that you make of healthy food coming out of these. You could potentially leverage some of the reward points through your wellness programs to actually redeem free food in there."

UnitedHealthcare already has several digital tools. Last year, the company opened up its mobile health app, Health4Me to the general public, two years after the company first launched the app for its members. The Health4Me app allows users to access their health information and their families’ health information in one place. Users can also find healthcare facilities in their area and compare prices for 520 medical services across 290 episodes of care so they can better estimate their healthcare expenses.


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