Educators Get Schooled in Diabetes and Digital Health

By Rita Pyrillis

Sep. 26, 2016

Diabetes continues to be a major health care cost for employers.

When it comes to health care costs, diabetes tops the list for Oregon’s public school teachers. Traditional wellness programs weren’t cutting it, so the Oregon Educators Benefit Board, which oversees the state’s public school districts, adopted a new approach using technology and peer support to help employees manage their health.

In July, the board, which provides health benefits for most of the state’s public schools and some local governments, launched a virtual diabetes prevention program that allows employees to participate in educational workshops and share their personal experiences with others online. Known as digital health self-management, it is a more focused approach to managing chronic conditions that puts employees in the driver’s seat, according to board director James Raussen.

“Diabetes can be difficult to manage, especially since we have so many remote locations and can’t oversee that population individually,” he said.In the past, the board would simply rely on insurance-carrier methods of handling this, but our carriers have to deliver services not only to diabetes patients but to everyone. It was clear that with diabetes we needed to be focused on quality of care, the cost of health care and importantly, member engagement.”

Participants can complete the workshops whenever they want; they also can give and get advice anonymously from others with similar health challenges. It’s similar to PatientsLikeMe, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, online patient support group launched in 2005, but with a wellness twist.

Users not only connect with each other, but are able to educate themselves and develop action plans to meet their health goals, according to Adam Kaufman, CEO of Los Angeles-based Canary Health, which developed Oregon’s program, called Virtual Lifestyle Management. The program is based on the National Diabetes Prevention Program, which was developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We think of self-management as a category that encompasses both digital and in-person support,” he said. “It’s the strategy that an employer or health plan or provider can adopt to empower a population to better understand their health and how its impacting their life and make the choices to become healthier.”

Canary Health offers online programs to manage a variety of chronic conditions, including heart disease, arthritis and depression.

It is an approach that providers and insurers adopted early on, but Kaufman said that more employers are likely to consider it as they look for ways to more actively manage their health care spending.

“We’re in the early innings of the ball game,” he said. “Most employers have been doing something around self-managed care for a long time, like community activities, support groups, but mostly on a small scale. Employers are recognizing that they can do this on large scale and public employers are leading the way.”

Kaufman said that this approach tends to offer greater benefits to employers with older workers, which is why public employers are embracing the concept.

Cynthia Burghard, research director at IDC Health, a technology research and consulting firm, said that digital health self-management has the potential to succeed where more traditional disease management programs have failed.

“Many of the employers and insurers put up patient reminder portals in addition to the HR stuff that you need to manage, like signing up for health insurance or disability insurance,” she said. “It was a dramatic failure. It required me to go out of my way to access all of that. We’re all too busy to wander around my insurer’s online portal. We need to be part of the workflow of a consumer. That’s where the digital piece comes in.”

Flexibility is the key to success of self-managed health programs, according to Raussen, who said that 300 employees have signed up for Virtual Lifestyle Management so far.

“Years ago if there was a program on obesity you had to do it on Monday nights at the local Kiwanis club,” said Raussen. “Members have so many things affecting their daily lives, so simplicity is a key factor. And flexibility. But that doesn’t mean the program lacks intensity. It’s easy to sign up and administer, but members feel that they are having thoughtful and useful discussions on the other end.”

Rita Pyrillis is a writer based near Chicago. Comment below or email

Rita Pyrillis is a writer based in the Chicago area.

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