New technologies, strategies to improve occupational health management

Health systems are using digital health tools and the electronic health record to not only monitor staff health and track compliance, but also empower employees to manage their health and connect with supervisors.

Healthcare organizations accustomed to using digital health for clinical care are finding value in these occupational health services. Some use technology platforms to help staff monitor their health and well-being and keep up with testing and vaccination protocols.

Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist, based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, delivers its occupational health program through a purpose-built eHealth platform developed through a partnership with Enterprise Health. The platform gives administrators insight into employee compliance and engagement, while streamlining the communication process and enabling interaction via mobile devices and an online portal.

“It was something that was definitely manual before,” said Samantha Lodish, the health system’s administrative manager. “We can now manage the health care of all our employees through the EHR. We definitely needed it and are grateful to have it.”

As healthcare organizations experiment with new technologies and strategies to improve occupational health outcomes, the COVID-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on the need to manage the health of their employees as carefully as they do their patients. Health system leaders struggled to track the health of clinicians and other staff as infected patients overwhelmed hospitals, seeking ways not only to treat patients without infecting their care teams but also to quickly identify and help staff who he really got infected.

“It became a necessity that we, as a hospital, needed to be able to track [the health of] and care for all of our employees,” says Lodish, recalling images of hospitals in other parts of the country that were forced to close services because they had too many sick employees. This not only ensured that the health system worked efficiently, she says, “it also improved mental well-being and reduced a lot of stress.”

Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist began this journey in 2018 when leaders decided to change their EHR platforms to include more occupational health services. Lodish says the legacy platform offered few OH services, forcing the health system to do much of the work manually and on paper.

“There was very little connectivity and communication,” she says.

The new platform integrates these services into an employee portal, enabling administrators to track and manage flu vaccine and other immunization compliance, as well as health screenings and testing. The portal also allowed administrators to post resources, such as the latest news on COVID-19 strains and vaccines, and receive real-time feedback from staff.

According to a case study prepared by Enterprise Health, the new platform enabled the health system to achieve a 98% compliance rate in its flu program while streamlining the distribution of flu vaccine reminders and pre-immunization consent forms that can be completed at at home and sent through the portal or on-site with an iPad.

The platform enabled administrators to not only accurately track the health and immunization status of all staff, but also generated compliance reports and created more robust employee health records.

Lodish says the digital health platform allows staff to exercise more control over health data while giving administrators the data they need to manage employee health.

The biggest challenge, she says, was “selling the need for it.” Some administrators and staff didn’t understand the benefits of an EHR-based platform until they saw what it could accomplish. And the pandemic certainly illustrates that value.

“It definitely wasn’t easy for us, but everything fell into place,” she says.

Expanding the Occupational Health Platform

While health systems like Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist are turning to digital health platforms for post-pandemic occupational health needs, many businesses have been using new tools and techniques for some time, often in conjunction with their health plans.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, private sector employers reported 2.8 million workplace injuries and illnesses in 2019, or 2.8 cases for every 100 employees. This amounts to approximately $1,100 in health care costs per employee, $42,000 for each employee who requires medical consultation, or about $171 billion in annual health care costs.

To try to deal with these costs, companies are developing new programs that not only aim to improve the health and well-being of their employees, but also help employees recover more quickly from injuries and illnesses. This includes virtual home visits for occupational therapy and rehabilitation. A growing number of businesses are also adding channels for behavioral health services, including substance abuse treatment.

Health plans and businesses (as well as some health systems) are also exploring the use of wearables to help employees monitor their health and well-being. Many explored this strategy during the pandemic through smartwatches, fitness trackers, and even rings that could monitor a user’s temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, and other signs that could indicate infection. Beyond the pandemic, these devices can help administrators identify an employee with health issues ranging from a virus (like the flu), to an infection, to behavioral issues.

These programs are expected to grow and expand as businesses, including healthcare organizations, seek to better manage employee health and, just as importantly, well-being.

At Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist, Lodish says the platform gives administrators another means of improving employee relations.

“The main thing is to be able to take care of your employees,” she says. “And to do that, you need to be able to reach them at any time,” either to pass on resources, answer questions or help with health issues.

“S [an occupational health platform], you have this niche that focuses solely on employees,” she adds. “It is important. It shows them that they are valued.”

Erik Wiklund is the innovation and technology editor for HealthLeaders.

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