SOUTHFIELD — The future of employee wellness programs will be intimately involved with social media and social gaming.

That was the word from a panel of experts Tuesday morning at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, at a seminar presented by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Michigan.

Jane Sarasohn-Kahn, a Philadelphia-based health economist, quoted health expert Charles Safran that “patients are the most underutilized resource in the health system. If we can get people involved in their own health, we can bend that cost curve.”

She also quoted U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin that providers and employers who pay for health care “can’t look at health in isolation. It’s not just the doctor’s office. It’s got to be where we live, where we work, where we play, where we pray.”

Sarasohn-Kahn noted that the United States spends more on health care than any other nation — but is only ranked in the 30s among industrialized nations in health benchmarks like infant mortality and longevity. And two out of three deaths on the planet are from lifestyle-caused diseases.

“Too many of us don’t eat right, use tobacco, use alcohol at harmful levels or are physically inactive,” she said.

One good thing about the recession, Sarasohn-Kahn said, is that consumers are increasingly involved in analyzing their spending, and are more likely to do more for themselves, from cooking to home repair. That plays into a trend she called “DIY health.”

Sarasohn-Kahn personalized the discussion, saying she wears a pedometer that feeds a cloud-based application so she knows how much she’s moved during the day — and enters her food consumption there too. Between exercise and food intake, she said, the app tells her “whether I can have dessert tonight.”

All this is important for a very simple reason — money. The cost to insure a family of four has doubled over the past 10 years to nearly $20,000 a year. And employees are sharing about 40 percent of that.

While Job 1 is changing employees’ poor health habits, Sarasohn-Kahn noted that people who already have chronic conditions tend to go online for health information less. Broadband availability can also be a barrier.

She said companies are increasingly structuring both carrots and sticks to encourage people going online to manage their health.

And there are other steps to take, like lowering the cost of preventive care like mammograms, colonoscopies and prostate exams, and providing health care clinics at workplaces to cut costs and the barrier of taking time away from work for preventive care.

Sarasohn-Kahn and the event’s other two panelists — Julian Bond, social media marketing manager for the Detroit Medical Center, and Cindy Bjorkquist, director of wellness and care management consulting and clinical program development at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan   — said they believe social gaming and online competitions will be useful in getting employees to stick to healthy behaviors.

Companies are also taking steps like putting healthier fare in vending machines and exchanging healthy recipes.


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