by Dean Witherspoon   Dean's profile on LinkedIn  

Some wellness practices have made their way deep into the fabric of organizations and the industry with little if any solid justification for their ongoing use. For nearly 30 years the annual or biennial HRA was a mainstay until enough people finally asked why are we doing this? For too long the answer was so we could tell clients they need to move more, eat more vegetables, wear their seatbelt, and get 7-9 hours of sleep a night. Oh, and you’re outside the desirable BMI range — better lose some weight, too.

In the last 5 years, the wellness tool du jour seems to be portals, the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink websites that promise to solve all program delivery and communication needs in a 1-stop shop. That HRA? Check. Education modules? Check. Challenges? Check. Health coaching? Check. Self-care content? Check. Rewards system? Check. Everything for everybody… check, check, check.

You’d think that someone aware of their health risks (compliments of an HRA) would naturally want to change behavior. Uh, no. And similarly, if all the best resources for supporting health improvement were rolled up into a wellness portal, participants would beat a (virtual) path to your door. Not yet, they aren’t.

The reason almost every wellness portal — whether internally created or licensed from a vendor — seems to be struggling to gain traction and uncoerced use isn’t that they’re bad tools. Indeed, some are technologic marvels. The reason comes down to 2 simple, fundamental questions that didn’t get asked or adequately answered before implementation.

Do employees really want this?

If you ask them, almost all will say yes. And if you ask them if they’d like free ice cream on Friday afternoon, they’ll say yes. Everyone loves ice cream until they step on the scale and everyone loves shiny technology until they learn that it doesn’t really do much for them unless they actually move more, eat more vegetables, etc. And that’s hard. A lot harder than slinging angry birds at virtual pigs.

So asking doesn’t really get you very far. Instead, get 100 or 1000 to use it for a month or 2, or 3. Then ask them as well as look at the data. And not just the portal use data, but the actual health behavior activities — whether recorded on the tool or not. Don’t rule out a portal (or any wellness tool for that matter) because use isn’t as high as you’d hope. Remember, your goal is health, not clicks on a website. And if simply having a portal available has a positive influence on behaviors, it may be a good investment.

Can you get voluntary use of the portal by a large segment of your population?

Forget about the prestigious medical advisory board that reviewed all of the content. No one cares. Or that awesome technology and the complex algorithms designed to create “tailored” content. Nope; it’s outdated the day it launched.

The only way a wellness portal will ever be successful is if it attracts a large, voluntary user base. If your portal can bring numbers of people together around a big, shared goal, if it can create a community of like-minded employees seeking to give and get support for their well-being efforts, then you’re on to something.

If you’re buying wellness portal services, the best way — short of doing a pilot with your entire population — to get a sense of its ability to create community is to talk with other organizations (as close to yours, demographically, as possible). Of course the provider will have some nice charts and graphs showing utilization, but if you really want the answer, start by talking to your colleague across town or across the country. If you can, ask for a visit where you can sit in their lunchrooms and talk to people about their portal use. If the answer is What portal? you may need to keep looking.

If you’re going to invest up to half of your overall budget in a portal, it’s important to have realistic expectations of what it will produce. Unless you do the heavy lifting of getting true answers to the questions above, you’re just crossing your fingers and hoping for the best. And if 30 years of unexamined use of HRAs has taught us nothing else, it’s that hoping for the best isn’t likely to get your population’s health where you want it.

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