I've never been a fan of strangers trying to tell me what they think is best for my health without knowing anything about me (although that's been happening most of my life, since being diagnosed with type 1 as a kindergartner!).
That's probably why I've never been a fan of the idea of wellness programs or coaching apps that attempt to dictate what’s right for a person’s health in the absence of any meaningful context on that person’s life.
Nevertheless, employer-backed and increasingly mobile-app-based ‘wellness programs’ are spreading like wildfire these days, and experts say they're having a significant impact on the health and well-being of millions of Americans in the workplace -- even those living with chronic conditions.
The drivers of these programs are of course cost savings on health insurance and boosting company productivity by reducing sick days -- and hopefully also to address the broad lack of public health awareness in this country.
Some newer diabetes device companies like Livongo, Telcare and iHealth are taking a swipe at offering these lifestyle support services packaged with their glucose meters. And big Pharma companies have also been getting into this game with programs like leading insulin maker Novo Nordisk’s Cornerstones4Care.
These are just a drop in the bucket, of course, of the plethora of diabetes-themed wellness programs out there.
We recently came across three noteworthy new wellness/app startups taking a fresh approach to tackling diabetes:
Located in Northern California, Yes Health's basic offering is an app-based 16-week program for people with prediabetes and type 2 that includes one-on-one coaching, nutrition and fitness tracking, and personalized health advice -- all available through the Apple store app.
This is not specifically designed for an employer wellness program, but offers similar features and can be used by companies if they so choose. For individual users, the cost is $9.75 for the first four months, and $15 per month to continue after that.
As part of the UCSF initiative, the company "will develop opt-in tools that provide its users the opportunity to share important de-identified behavioral data, such as diet, exercise, and sleep patterns, with UC San Francisco researchers focused on both type 2 diabetes and prediabetes."
The precision medicine part of the program is focused on collecting, connecting and applying vast amounts of scientific research data and (anonymized) information from users, to better understand why certain individuals respond differently to treatments and facilitate the development of more precise and predictive medicine.
This is the first in a series of planned collaborations between UCSF and Yes Health, which plans to develop further educational and support services aimed at type 2 diabetes prevention -- some of them available for open registration, and others that could be carried by employers.
San Francisco-based LifeDojo is a new tech-enabled fitness program aimed at employees already participating in corporate wellness programs. It offers employees a 12-week online behavioral change intervention program that provides a ton of information for developing healthy habits and even 24/7 access to health coaches via phone or text messaging.
The program guides users through weekly actions and motivational tasks about their own health, from keeping track of all their health practices -- exercise, nutrition, stress, sleep patterns, smoking, etc -- to even weaving financial advice into the program. The company boasts that 100% of this content is available on desktop, mobile and tablet, so employees have options.
It's a pretty straightforward wellness program setup, but they're particularly proud of their easy-to-view "smart" dashboard, that actually adapts to what users indicate are their biggest concerns and health focuses. It also offers fun 5-minute animated videos to keep users motivated.
Unfortunately, this one's not available for open enrollment; rather, it's picked up by employers to compliment or serve as the backbone of their new or already-established wellness programs.
To date, LifeDojo has more than 156 employers who've signed on to use their platform, and 75% of people complete the full four-month program. LifeDojo claims that for every 500 employees who participate and complete the program, the employer will save an average of $167,500 per year in healthcare costs.
On top of that, a study released last October shows some pretty incredible results for users:
- 83% of participants eliminated their chosen negative eating habit for the entire 90-day program duration
- 85% of participants stuck with their chosen positive eating habit for the entire 90-day program duration
- 1 in 3 employees lost more than 2% of their body weight
- 95% of employees reported significant improvement in overall health
- 98% of participants reported feeling confident in their ability to maintain their new healthy habits in the long term
- 95% of participants were satisfied with the program
- and roughly 40% reported being happier with their jobs after using LifeDojo
Well, OK then. It's obviously working well for some folks!
Note that LifeDojo was honored in the prestigious New York Startup Health Academy recently, and refers to itself as “The cure for the common corporate wellness program.”
This one's the newest innovation, not even on the market yet but taking a futuristic Big Data approach to rein in the effects of type 2 diabetes.
Based in San Francisco, this little digital startup founded in 2014 targets employers and the need to focus on how T2D impacts people's workplace productivity.
On the back-end, the system uses Artificial Intelligence to sift through thousands of medical journals, guidelines and other health information resources, all curated by a director of medical affairs -- to the end of suggesting personalized interventions and tips for better T2 management and overall health.
They're describing the end product, Suggestic, as not just an app but a "lifestyle GPS" that's akin to offering a digital personal life assistant that users can access 24/7 for individualized help.
The way it works is that after downloading the app, users first get "baseline" dietary and exercise advice for people with diabetes, and then more customized advice as they add personal data -- from age, weight, lab results, "blood sugar triggers" to genetic and family DNA info.
Beta testing has just kicked off, and when the app becomes available later this year it will be free on both iPhone and Android platforms, the company says. They apparently already have 1,000 people on a waiting list as this app goes through beta testing.
Suggestic plans to incorporate parts of this platform into employee wellness plans, hoping to reduce absenteeism and enhance workplace productivity. The startup's talking with health orgs and Pharma companies for possible lifestyle and treatment programs, but nothing's finalized yet.
Embracing Wellness Tools
I'm still not 100% convinced, but am willing to give these efforts more credit than originally thought. I guess a lifetime T1D like me can't help but being skeptical of anyone trying to provide "blanket" advice about health challenges (hello, diabetes unpredictability!)
But as we move headlong into the universe of personalized and precision medicine, maybe that's a culture shift we all need to start embracing -- wellness programs that may be more tailored to our needs than we'd expect.