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Apps latest bid by health insurers to manage wellness

The fitness, workout and nutrition apps may help physicians broach the subject of weight loss with patients.

By — Posted Jan. 14, 2013

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Discussing weight loss with patients may be a touchy subject, but physicians have more options to make the conversation go more smoothly.

Some insurance companies are expanding their wellness efforts by rolling out fitness apps that can benefit physicians and their patients.

In December 2012, Aetna unveiled Passage, a fitness app it developed with Microsoft. App users, after completing their workouts, can synchronize their activities to the app, which take them on virtual tours of what their workouts would be if they ran or biked in Barcelona, New York or Rome. The app offers real-time photos of those locations, restaurant recommendations and historical facts along the routes.

“As we look at the new year, health and fitness is at the top of people’s minds,” said Elizabeth Sell, an Aetna spokeswoman. “More people use apps to create fun fitness routines and become more engaged.”

Cigna has created a new bundle pack with four apps that are free to the first 20,000 users who download them. The Health Living App Pack consists of apps for nutrition, exercise, and mind and body relaxation. The most popular app of the pack, Fooducate, helps users grade the nutrition in their groceries and offers more healthy alternatives.

By using apps, doctors benefit from having more health and wellness alternatives to recommend to patients, said Cigna spokeswoman Mary Engvall.

Insurance companies appear to support wellness programs in general because they believe they will help their bottom lines by lowering costs and attracting new members, Ormond said. The Affordable Care Act focuses heavily on prevention, so it makes sense for insurers to bolster prevention efforts, she said. “They think it might work, and it seems to work, so these companies are investing in it.”

Wellness efforts accelerate

Wellness programs offered by insurance companies have been around for about 10 years, but they have grown in recent years, said Paul Coppola, Aetna’s head of wellness program strategy and development. The use of apps by insurance companies to promote wellness is relatively new, he said. Apps, as well as mind and body wellness programs, are expected to become more popular.

Health and wellness programs “will continue to grow with health care reform,” Coppola said. “There are increased incentives to focus on prevention.”

Prevention can save employers money on health care services, according to an Urban Institute study released in April 2012. The study attributed 22% of the California Public Employees Retirement System’s health care costs in 2008 to preventable diseases such as diabetes. A 1% reduction in the prevalence of preventable conditions among active members in the system would create about $3.6 million in savings per year.

Some doctors view apps as a tool to help patients lose weight and reduce stress, said Barbara Ormond, senior research associate at the Urban Institute.

“There are more results showing even small effects on each person’s health have an effect on the bottom line,” Ormond said. “Also, it helps people save money on their own health care costs.”

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