New technologies and strategies improve occupational health management

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

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

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

“It was something that was definitely manual before,” says Samantha Lodish, administrative director of the health system. “We are now able to manage the health care of all of our employees through the EHR. We really needed it and are grateful to have it.”

As healthcare organizations experiment with new technologies and strategies to improve workplace health outcomes, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need to manage the health of their employees with as much care as that of their patients. Health system leaders scrambled to track the health of clinicians and other staff as infected patients overwhelmed hospitals, seeking ways to not only treat patients without infecting their care teams, but also to quickly identify and assist infected personnel.

“It became a necessity that we, as a hospital, had to be able to follow [the health of] and take care of all of our employees,” Lodish says, conjuring up images of hospitals in other parts of the country that were forced to shut down because they had too many sick employees. Not only did this help ensure the healthcare system was working 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 shift EHR platforms to integrate more occupational health services. Lodish says the legacy platform offered few OH services, forcing the healthcare system to do much of the work manually and on paper.

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

The new platform integrated these services into an employee portal, giving administrators the ability to track and manage flu shot and other vaccination compliance, as well as wellness checks and tests. The portal also allowed administrators to distribute 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 helped the healthcare system achieve 98% compliance with its flu program, while streamlining the distribution of flu shot reminders and pre-immunization consent forms, which could be completed at home and submitted through the portal or on site with iPads.

The platform has enabled administrators to not only accurately track the health and immunization status of all staff, but it also generates compliance reports and creates stronger employee health records.

Lodish says the digital health platform has given staff greater control over health data, while giving administrators the data they need to manage employee health.

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

“It certainly wasn’t easy for us, but it all fell into place,” she says.

Expand the occupational health platform

As health systems like Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist turn to digital health platforms for workplace health needs in the wake of the pandemic, many companies 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 per 100 employees. That’s about $1,100 in health costs per employee, $42,000 for each employee who needs a medical consultation, or about $171 billion in annual health costs.

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

Health plans and companies (and some health systems) are also exploring the use of wearable devices to help employees track their health and wellness. Many have explored this strategy during the pandemic through smartwatches, fitness trackers, and even rings that could monitor temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, and other signs that could indicate infection. Beyond the pandemic, these devices could help administrators identify an employee with a health condition, ranging from a virus (like the flu), to an infection, to a behavioral health issue.

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

At Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist, Lodish says the platform gives administrators another way to improve 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 contact them at any time,” either to pass along resources, answer questions, or help with a health issue.

“With [an occupational health platform], you have this niche that is all about employees,” she adds. ” It is important. It shows them that they are valued.”

Eric Wicklund is the innovation and technology editor for HealthLeaders.

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