Employee data concept Employersare signing on for data-mining services despite concernsabout just how deeply they can mine health data. (Image:Shutterstock)

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Few areas of the corporate world are fraught with theconflicting objectives found in employee health. Company healthplans are designed to maintain employee health. Healthy employeesare more productive. And generous health coverage bolstersrecruitment and retention, a key goal in the zero-employmenteconomy.

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But benefits are also a nagging cost center. And many employersare uncertain about the legality of analyzing the health data their planscreate.

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How to balance these often conflicting priorities?

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Enter the latest potential solution: data mining platforms andconsultants.

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Data warehouses are nothing new. That's where employers firstturned when they needed a black hole in space to store the enormousbits of data generated every minute of the work day. But now, asthe Big Data industry rushes ahead, driven by itsown data, employers suddenly have myriad options for managing andmining those bits stashed away on the cloud. The question is: Howdo I get the answers I need from my data in a timely fashion withactionable recommendations? Oh, and without running afoul ofprivacy concerns?

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Related: Health care data breaches highlight limits ofHIPAA's vendor oversight

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That's where vendors like Springbuk, Segal Group, Artemis Healthand others come in. Their promise to employers: We'll help youquickly find out what you're looking for in your data. And we willalso bring to your attention trends and issues you didn't knowexisted that can generate a better return on your health planinvestment.

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Employers are signing on for these services despite concernsabout just how deeply they can mine health data. A recent Accenture survey found that only30 percent of respondents were "very confident that theyare using new sources of workforce data in a highly responsibleway." But 62 percent said they were already "using newtechnologies and sources of workforce data today," andthree-quarters were eager to analyze their employee data to growand transform their businesses, and to unlock their employees' fullpotential.

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And apart from legal protections around privacy, which remainuncertain, workers don't seem to be fearful of the Big Data/BigBrother syndrome. More than 90 percent of employeesresponding to the survey said they were fine with collection ofpersonal data, as long as it "improves their performance orwell-being or provides other personal benefits."

Connecting with employers

Platform builders are finding two routes to employers: Directlyto them through their sales teams, and through broker channels.Says Springbuk's Reasen, "We do believe in the value proposition ofthe broker model. They represent a strong advocacy at the locallevel that still exists. They like to be able to offer a tool likeours to get into data warehouses and analyze what's there for theirclients."

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Springbuk just unveiled an upgrade of its health intelligenceplatform that its executives say will both greatly reduce the timerequired to mine specific intelligence from health data, andprovide clients with customized, curated data-based reports ontopics ranging from risk mitigation, care efficiency and drugsavings, to steerage procedures and potentially unnecessaryprocedures.

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The upgrade further enhances the platform's ability to identifymembers within a plan population "who are at risk of developinghealth conditions and then get actionable information includingappropriate treatment, disease management resources and riskmitigation strategies. At-risk employees are identified based on aproprietary algorithm using a database of existing claims," thecompany says.

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In other words, the platform both responds rapidly to employerqueries about employee health, and anticipates, explores, andissues reports on trends that clients may not be aware of.

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"The message around health intelligence, as opposed to healthdata, is resonating with employers," says Springbuk's Rod Reasen,CEO and co-founder. "I just got off a call with a very largeorganization that represents hundreds of thousands of lives. Theywant to know why they bought a data warehouse. 'We thought we'dhave access to a lot o f information. but actually it's just accessto a lot of data.' Our health intelligence platform goes beyond adata warehouse to provide actually actionable intelligence."

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"It's a question of data mining versus data reporting," saysSegal's David Searles, vice president and the executive whodeveloped Segal's data analytics business. "Data mining creates newinformation from the data. The mining can say, for example, thatyou have 20 percent of your diabetics who aren't gettingtheir tests done. It is creating new actionable information fromthe data you are presented with."

Data-driven decisions

These new platforms can swiftly adapt to shifting prioritiesamong employees. As opioid abuse continues to take a toll onemployee health and the cost of insurance, Segal was asked toexamine one client's population to identify total savings potentialfor opioid abuse prevention management.

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"The client wanted us to quantify enhanced opioid criteriasavings to medical and prescription drug programs," he says. "Weanalyzed the data and discovered that, by limiting first fills ofopioid prescriptions to a 7-day supply, ER-related opioid visitsdecreased 35.3 percent."

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Demand is strong to mine employee data to evaluate workplacewellness programs. Generally, employers want to reduce theirwellness offerings to those programs that engage employees andproduce better health outcomes.

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"We get a lot of requests to examine the data for return oninvestments in various programs, both wellness or diseasemanagement. While you can't really do an ROI accurately–no oneagrees on a consistent methodology for it–you can determine theeffectiveness of the program by looking at the change in biometricdata of the participants," Searles says.

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"What we are pushing toward is this: Plan sponsors should usedata to actively manage their health plans. They should evaluatetheir employee profiles. Let's target a program that addressesconditions that are driving trends."

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One example would be designing a treatment plan for diabeticswith coronary disease. "They should be highly motivated and willincur large claims if they don't improve their condition," hesays.

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But first, the company needs to know whether its workforceincludes enough diabetics with coronary disease to justify creatingsuch a program. And that's where the emerging data mining platformsshine.

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The new mining platforms have immeasurably reduce the timerequired for an employer to find the desired information.Springbuk's Reasen says the chief medical officer for one clienttold him "it would have taken him a month to come up with the exact[report] we came up with in seconds."

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He adds: "When a user steps in front of a data warehouse, we areasking them to spend time and use their knowledge to extractinformation. We all have the same amount of time. How do we useit?"

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Strategic benefits firm Sequoia Consulting Group is a Springbukbroker client. CEO Greg Golub says his clients especiallyvalue the executive reports the platform produces.

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"Springbuk is very effective at producing executive reports,tailored for the CFO or HR leader. They do a good job ofsynthesizing the information into an actionable report. They arefocusing on the right stuff."

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Sequoia's chief marketing officer, MicheleFloriani, says being able to offer Springbuk reports toclients has led to positive feedback. "We offer it as a service toour self-insured clients and together we make use of the output andinsights to make annual and longer term strategy decisions on plandesign. It's really wonderful. That's the value to us. It focuseson what matters to the client."

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Dan Cook

Dan Cook is a journalist and communications consultant based in Portland, OR. During his journalism career he has been a reporter and editor for a variety of media companies, including American Lawyer Media, BusinessWeek, Newhouse Newspapers, Knight-Ridder, Time Inc., and Reuters. He specializes in health care and insurance related coverage for BenefitsPRO.