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New Technology, Strategies Improve Occupational Health Management

Analysis  |  By Eric Wicklund  
   August 30, 2022

Health systems are using digital health tools and the electronic health record to not only monitor staff health and track compliance, but give employees an avenue to manage their wellness and connect with supervisors.

Healthcare organizations accustomed to using digital health for clinical care are finding value in these services for occupational health. Some are using technology platforms to help staff track their health and wellness and keep up with testing and vaccination protocols.

Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist, based in Winston-Salem, NC, is running its occupational health program through a custom-built electronic health platform developed through a partnership with Enterprise Health. The platform gives administrators insight into employee compliance and engagement rates, while streamlining the communication process and allowing interactions through mobile devices and an online portal.

"This was something that was definitely manual before," says Samantha Lodish, the health system's administrative director. "Now we're able to manage the healthcare of all our employees through the EHR. We definitely needed this and are thankful we have it."

While healthcare organizations have been experimenting with new technologies and strategies to improve occupational health outcomes, the COVID-19 pandemic cast a sharp spotlight on the need to manage their employees' health as carefully as their patients. Health system leaders scrambled to track the health status of clinicians and other staff as infected patients overwhelmed hospitals, looking for ways not only to treat patients without infecting their care teams but also to quickly identify and help staff who did become infected.

"It became a necessity that we, as a hospital, had to be able to track [the health of] and care for all of our employees," Lodish says, evoking 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 operated efficiently, she says, "it also improved mental well-being and reduced a lot of stress."

Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist began this journey back in 2018, when executives decided to change EHR platforms to incorporate more occupational health services. Lodish says the legacy platform offered few OH services, forcing the health system to do a lot of the work manually and on paper.

"There was very little connectivity and communication," she says.

The new platform integrated those services into an employee portal, giving administrators the chance to track and manage flu shot and other immunization compliance, as well as wellness checks and tests. The portal also allowed administrators to push out resources, such as the latest news on COVID-19 strains and vaccines, and receive real-time feedback from staff.

According to a case study prepared by Enterprise Health, the new platform enabled the health system to achieve a 98% compliance rate in its flu program, while streamlining the distribution of flu shot reminders and pre-immunization consent forms, which could be filled out at home and submitted through the portal or on-site with iPads.

The platform enabled administrators not only to accurately track the health and immunization status of all staff, it also generates reports on compliance and creates more robust employee health records.

Lodish says the digital health platform allowed staff to exercise more control over the health data, while giving administrators the data they need to manage employee health.

The biggest challenge, she says, was "selling the need for it." Some administrators and staff didn't understand the benefits of an EHR-based platform until they'd seen what it could accomplish. And the pandemic certainly illustrated that value.

"It definitely wasn't easy for us, but everything did fall into place well," she says.

Expanding the Occupational Health Platform

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

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, private industry employers reported 2.8 million workplace injuries and illnesses in 2019, or 2.8 instances for every 100 employees. That amounts to roughly $1,100 in healthcare costs per employee, $42,000 for every employee who needs a medical consult, or about $171 billion in annual healthcare costs.

To try and get a handle on those costs, businesses are developing new programs that not only aim to improve the health and well-being of their employees, but help employees recover more quickly from injuries and illnesses. This includes virtual visits in the home for occupational therapy and rehabilitation. A growing number of businesses are adding channels for behavioral health services as well, including substance abuse treatment.

Health plans and businesses (as well as some health systems) are also exploring the use of wearables to help employees track their health and wellness. 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 might indicate infection. Beyond the pandemic, those devices could help administrators identify an employee with a health concern, ranging from a virus (like the flu), to an infection, to a behavioral health concern.

Those programs are expected to grow and expand as businesses, including healthcare organizations, look to better manage employee health, and just as important, wellness.

At Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist, Lodish says the platform gives administrators another means of improving employee relations.

"The main thing is being able to care for your employees," she says. "And to do that you have to be able to reach out to them at any time," either to pass along resources, answer questions ,or help with a health concern.

"With [an occupational health platform], you have this niche that focuses solely on employees," she adds. "That's important. It shows them that they're valued."

“Now we're able to manage the healthcare of all our employees through the EHR. We definitely needed this and are thankful we have it.”

Eric Wicklund is the associate content manager and senior editor for Innovation, Technology, and Pharma for HealthLeaders.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

Occupational health concerns account for roughly $171 billion in annual healthcare costs and range from illnesses and viruses to behavioral health concerns and substance abuse issues.

Prompted in part by the pandemic, which highlighted the importance of monitoring employee health, healthcare organizations are using the EHR platform and digital health technology to track employee health and give staff a platform to manage their wellness and communicate with supervisors.

Some health systems and businesses are even using virtual care platforms and wearables to monitor health concerns and give employees on-demand access to care and resources.


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