New technologies and strategies improve occupational health management

Health systems use digital health tools and electronic health records to not only track staff health and monitor compliance, but offer 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 use technology platforms to help staff monitor their health and well-being and keep up with vaccination tests and protocols.

Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist, based in Winston-Salem, NC, is running its occupational health program through a customized electronic health platform developed through a partnership with Enterprise Health. The platform provides administrators with insights into employee compliance and engagement rates, while simplifying the communication process and enabling interactions via mobile devices and an online portal.

“This was something that used to be very manual,” says Samantha Lodish, chief administrative officer of the health system. “We are now able to manage health care for all of our employees through the EHR. We absolutely needed it and we are grateful for it.”

As healthcare organizations have experimented with new technologies and strategies to improve occupational health outcomes, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need to manage their employees’ health with the same attention as their patients. Healthcare leaders rushed to track the health of doctors and other staff as infected patients overwhelmed hospitals, looking for ways not only to treat patients without infecting their care teams, but also to identify and quickly help staff who have been infected.

“It became a necessity that we, as a hospital, had to be able to monitor [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 services because they had too many sick employees. Not only did it ensure that the health system worked efficiently, but he says, “it also improved mental well-being and reduced a lot of stress.”

Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist began this journey in 2018 when executives decided to switch EHR platforms to incorporate 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,” he says.

The new platform integrated these services into an employee portal, giving administrators the ability to monitor and manage flu shots and other vaccinations, 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 to receive real-time feedback from staff.

According to a case study prepared by Enterprise Health, the new platform has enabled the healthcare system to achieve a 98% compliance rate in its flu program, while simplifying the distribution of flu shot reminders and pre-immunization consent forms, which they could be filled out at the home address and sent via the portal or on-site with iPad.

The platform has enabled administrators to not only accurately track the health and vaccination status of all staff, but also generate compliance reports and build stronger employee health records.

Lodish says the digital health platform has enabled staff to exercise greater control over health data, providing administrators with the data they need to manage employee health.

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

“It certainly wasn’t easy for us, but it all went well,” he says.

Expand the platform for occupational health

While health systems like Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist are turning to digital health platforms for occupational health needs in the wake of the pandemic, many companies have long been using new tools and techniques, often alongside their health plans.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, private sector employers reported 2.8 million occupational injuries and illnesses in 2019, or 2.8 cases per 100 employees. This equates to approximately $ 1,100 in health care costs per employee, $ 42,000 for each employee requiring medical advice, or approximately $ 171 billion in annual health care costs.

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

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

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

Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist, Lodish says the platform offers administrators another means to improve employee relationships.

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

“With [an occupational health platform], you have this niche that focuses solely on employees, “he adds.” This is important. Show them they are appreciated. “

Eric Wicklund is the Innovation and Technology Editor for HealthLeaders.

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