What do health savings accounts (HSA) or flexible spending accounts (FSA) do for consumers? Most of the people who have one couldn’t tell you. They don’t know what their benefits are. They don’t know how to access them. They don’t know the limits of their contributions, spending, or whether they need to save receipts. Siri doesn’t know any better than consumers, and neither does Google. For the love of sanity, never Google your health concerns.
As much as companies may think they’re giving employees everything they need during open enrollment, the fact is, few people are able to make sense of those stacks of paper. Maybe there’s too much information. Maybe it’s presented poorly. Or maybe they just had a kid home sick from school all week and couldn’t give it the attention it needed.
There are a lot of places where healthcare falls short. John Young, SVP of consumerism and strategy at Alegeus, doesn’t think consumers understanding their plan should be one of them.
“The paternalistic role of the employer toward employee healthcare is changing,” said Young. “But the employee doesn’t want to step up and learn one more thing.” That, he said, leaves consumers in a conundrum. How do they choose the right plan, and how do they understand the best, most cost-effective way to apply it when the time comes?
It was 1995 when FIS Global conceived the first healthcare benefit debit card. Then came the consumer-driven healthcare age. The FIS healthcare benefits division emerged on the other side as Alegeus, and today, it’s still trying to make healthcare more consumer-friendly, this time with an intelligent voice-activated assistant named Emma.
“Consumer-driven healthcare” has become a bit of a buzzword. So what exactly does it mean, and how is Emma gearing up to push the sector forward?
Quite simply, consumer-driven healthcare puts the consumer first. It requires providers to put themselves in consumers’ shoes, to understand “the hearts and minds of normal people” and help them navigate the space, said Young. And what better way than to meet them where they are – on their mobile devices – in a way that feels natural – by speech?
Emma lives inside a mobile app, so users have to tap to open before they can begin their conversation, but after that, the voice-activated assistant not only answers questions; she even displays her own personality, cracking the occasional joke. “Can an apple a day keep the doctor away?” she might ask. “Only if your aim is good enough.”
Emma is not an artificial intelligence, Young said, because she doesn’t learn from her consumer interactions. But she is “intelligent” to the extent that she can answer the most common questions – questions that consumers are already turning to their healthcare providers’ apps to answer.
Another thing Emma is not? The first tool for helping people understand their healthcare plans – she’s just the first voice-activated intelligent assistant. The problem, said Young, is that the uptake of existing tools is really low. They’re hitting the same wall that open enrollment info packets hit – i.e., nobody is using them. Web portals see very little activity, especially now that most providers have a mobile app where patients can log in to see things like their balances and other financial information.
If Emma is going to fare better, said Young, a few things will need to happen. He believes the assistant’s on-demand nature will take it far, but besides that, there’s going to have to be a shift in consumer confidence before engagement with tools like this can increase. Young suggested that a financial incentive could help with this – for example, offering a $150 gift card or contribution to spending accounts if a consumer uses the tool to pick a high-quality, cost-efficient solution for their care.
“We have woefully low healthcare and financial literacy in this country,” said Young. “People just don’t understand their plans. We’re fulfilling an important social need.”