Tracking health-care trends for 2017

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Print this page By Chris Mullins

The U.S. health care system will continue to evolve during 2017, with new technologies and programs helping make care more efficient and accessible for more Americans.

Here are five health care trends for Virginia's consumers and business leaders to monitor during the coming year.

Fitness trackers
The wearable-technology market is booming. The industry’s value is expected to reach $31.2 billion by the end of 2020, according to a recent research report. This is good news for consumers, as wearable devices enable people to track their daily steps, monitor their heart rates and analyze sleep patterns. Some employers and health plans in Virginia, such as UnitedHealthcare Motion, are including fitness trackers as part of wellness programs, enabling some employees to earn up to $1,500 per year in incentives by meeting specific daily walking goals. A study published in Science & Medicine shows people tend to overestimate how much exercise they get each week by more than 50 minutes, and they underestimate sedentary time by more than two hours, underscoring the importance of a wellness program like UnitedHealthcare Motion.

Workplace wellness
Besides fitness trackers, some employers offer other wellness incentives, which can include gift cards, lower health insurance premiums, cash bonuses and discounts on gym memberships. An estimated 70 percent of employers already offer wellness programs and 8 percent more plan to do so during the next year, according to a 2016 study from the Society for Human Resource Management. The value of corporate wellness incentives has increased to $693 per employee, up from $430 five years ago, according to a recent study from the National Business Group on Health. However, the study found that fewer than half of eligible employees earned the full incentive, with workers leaving millions of dollars of unclaimed rewards.

Comparison shopping
The internet has transformed how people purchase goods and services, and it is doing the same for health care. Some new online and mobile services enable people to comparison shop for health care based on quality and cost. With a growing number of Americans now enrolled in consumer-directed health plans, more people are using online and mobile health-care transparency resources. More people (32 percent) are using websites and mobile apps to comparison shop for health care, up from 14 percent in 2012, according to the recent UnitedHealthcare Consumer Sentiment Survey. 

Get care anywhere
New mobile apps now enable people to meet with primary-care physicians and specialists to obtain medical care, with the goal of providing convenience and more affordable care. The cost of a video-based virtual visit is usually less than $50 and may provide significant savings when compared to costs for similar minor medical needs treated at a doctor’s office (approximately $80), urgent-care facility (approximately $160) or an emergency room (approximately $650), according to UnitedHealthcare claims data. Recent advances in audio and video technology are enabling people to obtain a diagnosis and necessary prescriptions for minor medical needs, including allergies, sinus and bladder infections, bronchitis and other conditions.

Value-based care
Employers and health plans increasingly are using value-based care arrangements. This trend is a shift away from the common fee-for-service structure in which a care provider is paid separately for each treatment, appointment or test during a treatment plan, generating multiple claims within a single, broader episode of care. Under value-based care arrangements, the health-care providers that employees use are paid for achieving certain quality outcomes and demonstrating that they’re improving people’s health, rather than getting paid solely for the number of services they provide to patients.

In other words, they’re paid for value over volume. For instance, a new UnitedHealthcare program with health care facilities nationwide is using a type of value-based care arrangements (bundled payments) for knee, hip and spine procedures. Participating employers have recorded an average savings of $10,000 or more per operation when compared with median costs in the same metropolitan area. Meanwhile, employees having the surgery may save $1,000 in lower out-of-pocket costs when accessing an in-network facility that accepts bundled payments.

Whether you're an employee or employer in Virginia, awareness of these trends in health care can help you save time, save money and ultimately take full advantage of the many benefits that are available.

Chris Mullins is CEO of UnitedHealthcare of the Mid-Atlantic.

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