Taking big data to next level key to boosting employee health promotion

By taking the use of data to the next level, employers and insurers can improve their ability to promote better health through benefits plans.

That was a key message from Tarick Fadel, director of analytics, research and pricing at Alberta Blue Cross, during a presentation at Benefits Canada‘s Calgary Benefits Summit on May 29. “We can actually refine it to a point that we can have a high degree of confidence in certain outcomes,” Fadel said of the promise of taking a more integrated and forward-looking approach to big data in benefits plans.

While benefits plans already use data in a number of ways, including in regards to fraud detection, member population trends and claims information, they’re typically doing so retrospectively, said Fadel. “We’re almost always looking backwards,” he told attendees at Calgary’s Fairmont Palliser hotel last month.

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But with big data providing a higher volume of information — and a greater variety of it — at increasing speeds, there’s an opportunity to do much more, according to Fadel. What’s key, he said, is to integrate all of the pieces of information in order to take advantage of predictive analytics. “All of that information needs to be connected somehow if we’re to tell the story of member health.”

Those pieces include traditional information, such as prescription drug claims, as well as data from other sources, such as medical devices, social media, email and surveys. As examples of the possibles uses of the information, Fadel cited the possibility of a person’s profile suggesting a high likelihood of skin cancer. A perhaps more controversial example is data that shows someone is dating a person who’s taking medication for hepatitis C. Such situations raise obvious ethical considerations around whether to disclose the information to a plan member, Fadel noted.

Privacy, of course, is a key issue in any discussion around using data more proactively, said Fadel, who noted the current debate over collecting information by social media organizations such as Facebook Inc. “Sometimes, the applications are beneficial; sometimes, not so much,” he said.

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On the issue of privacy, Fadel noted the terms and conditions of the benefits platform can provide for allowing for the use of data when logging onto it. But he emphasized that in order to maintain plan members’ trust, it will be crucial to ensure that a more integrated approach to data doesn’t allow for an employer to learn about an individual’s condition.

For plan sponsors, the upsides include having more information on cohorts of employees who are at risk of certain conditions. But while prevention and cost savings are the ultimate goals, Fadel cautioned that employers won’t necessarily see reduced costs right away.

“It could cost more money in the short term, but the hope is you’re going to save money in the long term through prevention,” he said, adding that the savings also depend on how members respond to the information they get.

“The onus is on them. Your [return on investment] in this case . . . it really is dependent on your employees taking charge here.”

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