At IBM, employee and family health is a global concern

For Kyu Rhee, MD, chief health officer and vice president of integrated health services at IBM, thinking about the health of employees is just the right thing for an employer to do.

“Given the number of hours we all spend working,” he said in a recent interview with Future Care, “all employers should be thinking about a culture of health.”

Of course, altruism isn’t necessarily IBM’s only motivation. With nearly 400,000 employees at 2000 sites in 170 countries, and with a significant annual healthcare investment, there are plenty of financial reasons, too. Either way, the challenge of promoting good health for employees while working to drive down costs gives IBM a lot of experience with developing effective employee programs.

As Rhee sees it, any employee health program “needs to be evidence-based and data-driven. It’s important to identify the specific issue you’re trying to address, both conceptually and concretely, then set the goals you’re trying to achieve.”

He noted that in India, for example, the law only requires automobile drivers to wear seat belts and motorcycle drivers to wear helmets, but their passengers are exempt from both.  Statistics show, however, that the use of seat belts and helmets has a dramatic impact on the rate and severity of injuries.  Consequently, IBM has a campaign to educate its Indian employees about the benefits of seat belts and helmets, has a requirement that anyone riding in IBM transportation must use these protections, and the company trains its staff to suggest the use of seat belts to visitors driving on IBM properties.

When it comes to more direct healthcare spending, Rhee noted that 80 percent of IBM’s healthcare spend involves six chronic disease conditions, including hypertension and diabetes. To help address those conditions, IBM gives employees access to an array of tools –including tele-health options, retail clinics and free wearable technologies – that will enable them to monitor their conditions while also enabling IBM to continue to collect de-identified, aggregated data in the name of developing new and better programs.

So how does the company determine the effectiveness of their array of programs?  According to Rhee, there are four categories of performance indicators.  The first, he said, involves constant attention to quality from primary to secondary to tertiary prevention. This include programs that prevent disease such as flu vaccinations, detect disease early such as cancer screenings, and treat disease such as medication adherence programs – “all meant to keep people healthy, productive, and high-performing.” 

Next is a more traditional assessment of costs and ROI.  “We are regularly assessing how our programs are affecting medical trends among our employees,” Rhee said, with the obvious intent of driving costs down.

The next indicator revolves around assessing the employees’ experience with the company’s programs through the traditional Net Promoter Score questions– “On a scale of 0 to 10, would you recommend Program X to a friend or colleague?” The follow-up question asks an open-ended qualitative question—“Why did you give that score?” The final indicator gauges the extent to which employees engage IBM’s offerings through both high-tech and high-touch means.

Nothing is more important to us than trust,” Rhee said. “We are constantly trying to make the healthiest choice the easiest choice.  We give them access to innovative resources and data-driven, evidence-based tools, including those powered by IBM analytics/insights like Watson (e.g., Welltok). Naturally, we want people to engage with the programs we offer, but it’s up to them. Our job is to do the right thing, and to empower our employees to do the same.”