Health insurer dedicates IT group to work with Digital Experience team

Collaborative effort speeds digital innovation at HealthNow New York

healthcare it tech health

Sean Radlich is Manager of Digital Experience at HealthNow New York, one of the leading health insurance companies in upstate New York servicing about a million members.  Headquartered in Buffalo, NY, the company operates BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York (Buffalo), BlueShield of Northeastern New York (Albany), Health Now Brokerage Concepts (Blue Bell, PA) and Health Now Administrative Services (across the Northeast US and California).  Network World Editor in Chief John Dix recently spoke with Radlich about the organization’s digital initiatives and how his team works with IT. 

Sean Radlich, Manager of Digital Experience, HealthNow New York

Sean Radlich, Manager of Digital Experience, HealthNow New York

There is a lot of talk about digital transformation.  Tell us what digital means to your organization.

We don’t specifically call it a transformation.  The Digital Experience department I manage is about five years old, but it has become more of a focus in the last few years as the areas of healthcare and consumerism have come together. When we talk about transforming healthcare one of the things we’re focused on is making our systems and processes more self-service because that’s what members now expect.  They see it in every other aspect of their lives and we’re trying to deliver that in our healthcare offerings.

We all know that innovations usually have some sort of digital or technological aspect to them.  The team was set up to help coordinate between all of the areas of business instead of having these disparate digital efforts happening on their own.  This is a hub and spoke model, where the digital experience team helps each area of the business within the company.

So what you folks create gets pushed out to all the different organizations?

Yes.  We’ll create different branding for each of our entities, different messaging depending on the market constituent.  But it’s not only member communication.  We have to deal with the digital communications for our providers, brokers and the group benefit administrators that work for our clients, so there are a lot of different constituents we message to.

Where do you report into the organization?  What group are you in?

We actually report through sales and marketing.  But we have an area of IT devoted to supporting our digital and mobile initiatives.  It is more of a dotted line relationship, but it’s one of the advantages we have and it makes us very nimble.  I haven’t seen many companies where there is a specific area of IT carved out to focus on digital and mobile.

How big is that IT group and what types of folks are in it?

We carved out about 18-20 people and devoted them to the digital and mobile experience.  Folks on that team range from web designers to developers, but there are a plethora of people that can help us.  Digital moves so fast that if we had to go through traditional IT channels it would take a lot longer to get projects off the ground.  But we can go from ideation to launch in a very, very short period because we work so closely together.

Do these IT folks have day jobs or are they working full time in this capacity?

I would say about 80% of their time is spent focused on this. I work closely with the manager of that department. We’ll do joint training, which is not unheard of but it’s not common for digital marketing folks to have joint training with IT.  We’ll have lunch-and-learn sessions.  We’ll bring what we learn from conferences back and share it with them and they will do the same.  People on my team are learning skills like CSS and HTML and things that maybe they wouldn’t have learned before.  The IT team is brought in early during our ideation to help us see things from a different perspective. 

Budget-wise do you have your own budget or do you get a piece of the IT budget?   How does that work?

I do have my own budget, which is great.  But the IT people are still part of the IT budget.

Going back to the impetus for the digital push, you’re saying it was mostly just an acknowledgment that the world is changing and customers expect to interact with you differently?

It was definitely that. We have always been focused on customer satisfaction scores.  We put out surveys twice a year and frankly, a lot of our website scores were lower than what we wanted.  Customers were wondering why we couldn’t give them personalization and real time responses and chat functionality, etc. That had become the norm in many industries but traditionally healthcare hasn’t been as quick to adopt, so we made a concerted effort to push toward that.

We also knew that, with the Affordable Care Act, we had to really focus on the consumer side of the business.  Traditionally we had worked mostly with the commercial side of the house, but we saw that, with the individual exchanges, consumers were going to be moving to more of a self-serve model.  We had to update our websites with a more user-friendly flow to make it easier for individuals to research their options.

Was mobile support a piece of it from the get-go or was that added later?

We’ve had a mobile app for several years, but we’re actually just in the midst of releasing a new version probably within the next month or so.  Mobile has been an increased focus of ours.  In the last year we’ve seen our app downloads increase by 35%.  Again, from survey information we received back and just looking at analytics, we realized that needed to be a core area of focus.  Over the last six months we’ve focused on the new release of the app which will be coming hopefully in about a month.

Let’s turn to some examples of where you’re making a difference.  

One of the ways we measure success is return on investment.  Are we affecting the bottom line, either helping increase revenue or helping reduce expenses?  Actually, many of the projects we’ve done have helped with both of those.  A good example is moving a lot of our traditionally paper oriented documents to paperless.  Believe it or not a lot of health insurance documents are still mailed to people.  So last year we focused on getting more of our population to receive explanation of benefits (EOBs) electronically, and we moved the needle significantly.  In the last 18 months it has increased 187%, which saves a ton of money.  And an area where we’ve grown revenue is using email notifications during open enrolment to get new members and to retain existing members, and we had an amazing conversion rate of 34%.

How about any digital programs targeted at the health of the insured?

We have specific health and wellness platforms and content on our website.  You can take your Health Risk Assessment (HRA) online and then keep track of your progress, your nutritional information, your exercise information, how much water you drink each day, etc. We integrate with a lot of wearable devices, whether it be Fitbit, Jawbone, things of that nature.  We’re really trying to incorporate a lot of the things that our members are already doing and have it live on their member portal and their dashboard so they can view it while they’re in there tending to their regular insurance needs, viewing a claim, things like that.  They can have all that at their fingertips.

Is there any monetary benefit in it for them?

If someone completes the Health Risk Assessment and goes through a biometric screening in person with one of our health coaches, if their employer has it spelled out in their contract, they can incentivize employees by offering a discounted premium or by lowering the deductible.  Or there could be some sort of gift card or cash reward as well. 

We also offer our HealthyLife Rewards program, which is a digital program we launched in Albany under the Blue Shield brand that creates nutrition incentives for members.  They can earn up to $500 each year based on the grocery items they purchase.  When they choose the healthiest items they get incentives and cash back rewards.

That’s been pretty successful for us.  We partnered with NutriSavings on that and we launched it in January and in just a few short months we’ve seen a 10% adoption rate over 400 different employer groups.  So we’ve had really good success with that. 

Why do people sign up for that?

We’ve always believed in helping members stay healthy, be healthy, and this was an opportunity to offer a nutrition based reward program.

You said enrolment is a key indicator of success.  Are there other metrics you watch?

We have anecdotal feedback from subscribers, and some employer groups telling us what a good value add it is.  Being digital it’s easy for us to watch the analytics.  That’s the beauty of digital.  It’s not like putting up a billboard and not knowing what happened.  We can actually track the process and user flow and see if people are adopting it.  It’s too early at this point, but we’ll also eventually do surveys on a group level as well as a subscriber level to gauge the satisfaction and impact.

Is it an app?

Yes, we also created a landing page within our website.  If you go to you can access it.  It’s in the Health and Wellness area and it’s called HealthyLife Rewards.  What we do is inform subscribers about the program, talk to them about the benefits, what they have to do to sign up, and then they download the NutriSavings app.  It’s all powered and hosted by NutriSavings. They partner with health plans across the country and we took the product and tweaked it a bit to our liking and rebranded it HealthyLife Rewards.  It’s their technology. 

Ok.  Switching back to the big picture digital experience, where do you see this movement going from here? How do you anticipate the technology further changing the customer experience?

I think we’ve only scratched the surface on how much personalization we can do.  We have a lot of data at our disposal.  We have to figure out how to use it at the appropriate times and in the appropriate way without it seeming creepy to members. It’s really about figuring out how to utilize all that data we have to give somebody a beneficial and personalized user experience.

Where would you say we are on the march to digital nirvana, if you will? 

I would say we’re probably near the beginning.  We’ve done a lot of great things.  I think we’ve got a lot of great information.  We just have to figure out how to utilize that and move forward. A lot of the processes in the health insurance industry are still very manual and paper driven, and it’s taking that process and moving it over onto a digital platform and figuring out how to utilize that information.  I would say we’re probably still fairly early in the process, which is exciting.  There are tons of opportunities. 

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