Appeared in the original title, “Programme de santé : une solution complémentaire et novatrice”, Effectif, April/May 2011. Traduit avec l’autorisation de l’Ordre des conseillers en ressources humaines agréés. Tous droits réservés. Translated with the permission of l’Ordre des conseillers en ressources humaines agréés. All rights reserved.

By Marc Giguère, CRHA, and Erinn Macaulay

The universal health care system in Canada is recognized as one of the country’s most valuable resources. However, its structure is undergoing reforms that have led to gaps in publicly available information.

To access the services they need, Canadians must now try to navigate what appears to be a maze of information. Moreover, these structural changes mean that patients, with some assistance from health professionals, must learn to understand their health options and make decisions regarding their own care and treatment. The only problem is that Canadians have not been informed of this new responsibility.

Within this framework, employers are becoming increasingly responsible for the health and well-being of their employees. Although a variety of health and wellness programs are accessible to employees, the goal of each of these programs is the same: to target health risks and to reduce the costs associated with them. Employers find themselves in an ambivalent situation; while they are not legally required to provide these services, best practices and the impact of health on performance make these services a necessity.

While traditional wellness initiatives can be useful and beneficial to an employee, they do little to address the larger issues present within the Canadian health care system, and fail to acknowledge how these issues impact the individual. Employees may face rather complex health problems, ones that may require more specialized resources than those available through a health and wellness and/or benefits program. Health navigation, however, provides a solution that allows employers to direct their employees to reliable health information, provide them with the tools to make informed decisions, educate them on how to become effective health consumers, and empower them to take control of their health.

Strengthening Health Strategies and Services

The importance of strengthening an employer’s health and wellness strategies and services is exemplified here:

  • Health risk factors are numerous: stress within and outside of the workplace, smoking, physical inactivity, etc. Encouraging people to be aware of, and minimize, their health risks is a challenge, not only for the government, but for employers as well.
  • A national survey on the health of Canadians, conducted by Desjardins Financial Security (News release: May 5th, 2010), demonstrates that the amount of stress experienced by the “sandwich generation” is substantial and should not be overlooked. “What this survey shows is that young adults become caregivers for their parents without receiving sufficient support. This is a new and growing social phenomenon and we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg,” says Taylor Alexander, CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association, national office.
  • At the latest mental health conference held in Montreal in November of 2010, a medical consultant for Pfizer Canada Inc. shed some light on the data collected from a survey conducted at Pfizer: 82% of respondents had, or thought they had, a depressive disorder and were fearful of being laid off by their employer, while 46% of them indicated waiting longer than six months before consulting a health care professional.

The complexities of our health care system coupled with the personal health challenges faced by employees greatly impact the workplace. When individuals are distracted by their own health concerns, or those of their children or parents, their energy and motivation at work may be affected, as their focus shifts from their responsibilities at work towards their personal concerns. Employees’ priorities may differ from that of the organization they work for, and can lead to presenteeism or outright absenteeism. How can organizations improve the health services offered to their employees? How can they reach a larger number of individuals in order to help them improve their lives? How can they assist employees and encourage them to seek the help they need, from managing everyday stress-inducing situations to acquiring healthy lifestyle habits?

Employers, who are looking for cost-effective solutions but hoping to provide employees with additional support services, can build a health support program featuring simple tools offered through a web platform. Here are some elements to consider:

  • Offers access to trustworthy internet resources and telephone services which act as supports for all health-related needs. Market research data indicates that people commonly use the internet to access health information (Dr. Google phenomenon). However, be cautious! Information available on the internet is not always reliable.
  • Offers a simple internet browsing experience, featuring practical solutions as well as access to a variety of up-to-date content based on national and provincial health standards. This differs widely from the static information libraries commonly available to the public.
  • Offers concrete internet and telephone support, allowing employees to retrieve information on many topics related to their health needs, and giving them the freedom to not only make informed health decisions, but also to educate themselves, while being provided with the encouragement they need. This tool complements the health programs and/or employee assistance program already offered by the employer.
  • Organizes, promotes, and reinforces corporate health and wellness programs already in place by integrating them into one web platform. The ability to integrate these programs improves the experience of both employees and their families, as consumers of health services. This integrated service helps employers promote the proactive behaviours they hope to encourage in the workplace.
  • Facilitates access to and adequately promotes the program with a simple accessibility mechanism. The role of the Human Resource representative is very important in this case, as users are more likely to remember that they have access to a service if it is actively promoted. With a simple mechanism in place, it will be easier for users to access the platform, resulting in the impulse to use this resource when doing health-related research (i.e. Intranet access button).

Some examples:

In order to clearly represent the benefits of a program such as this one, here are two examples that demonstrate the usefulness of promoting health and wellness in the workplace.

After browsing the website made available to him by his employer and group benefits provider, an employee contacted the telephone assistance service. During his discussion with the health information specialist, the employee mentioned the exasperation he felt when it came to the magnitude of tasks involved in being a caregiver. He added that he was overwhelmed by the need to bring his father to another city for chemotherapy treatments on a weekly basis.

While speaking to the health information specialist, the employee obtained useful tools and information about his concerns. He was informed of the many resources available to him: a regional volunteer transport service that would be supplied at the cost of fuel, access to an employee assistance program, access to an income tax credit for caregivers, and information regarding the many support groups that could assist him. The health information specialist also gave him the phone number to his local community health centre, and explained the services offered by this health care provider.

Within 24 hours, the employee received a personal health information package along with a government guide for the caregiver’s tax credit, a list of specialized psychologists in familial and matrimonial counselling, a variety of relevant health articles, and information directing him to a regional volunteer centre and homecare services, etc.

This case shows the extent to which a well-structured complementary program can result in proactive help before serious psychological and physiological issues manifest themselves.

In another example, a senior executive contacted the telephone assistance service about a rare neurological disease. Given his diagnosis and treatment options, his medical team had suggested he consider participating in a clinical trial for a new drug. He was hesitant about taking an experimental drug, and wanted to better inform himself before making a decision. The health information specialist he spoke to reassured him, informed him of his options, and explained what information he would receive, including the most current research relevant to his medical condition. He received an exhaustive list of practical questions to ask his physician with regards to his participation in the clinical trial, an article about clinical trials, and a list of reputable resources.

By giving employees access to a unique web platform, employers can help fill the information gaps and help their employees make informed health decisions. This platform allows staff to access information about lifestyle changes, specific medications, health care access, and also provides pertinent information to better prepare employees for medical appointments, help them better understand a new diagnosis, and assist them in their search for alternative treatment options, etc.

In conclusion, access to supplemental resources combined with the integration of numerous health programs into one unique platform can only lead to a more effective application of health care services and to a better control of an employer’s health-related costs (medications, disabilities, etc.).

Marc Giguère, CRHA, M.A., VP Business Development, and Erinn Macaulay, Health Solutions Specialist, Novus Health.

Source : Effectif, volume 14, number 2, April/May 2011.