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Health Coaching For The Masses

University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Health Plan will provide coaching, wellness services, and hospital quality ratings to all insured members through WebMD portal.

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You don't have to work for a very large corporation anymore to have access to health and wellness coaches. You just have to have a health insurance company that offers the service.

"It used to be that the GEs of the world were the only ones who could afford to have a wellness program," said Dave Passavant, senior director of consumer innovation at UPMC Health Plan, the insurance arm of the integrated health system formerly known as the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Now, UPMC Health Plan is offering this to individuals and small groups.

UPMC Health Plan this week became the first health insurer in the U.S. to offer WebMD's Digital Health Assistants service, an online health coaching and wellness program. Through Digital Health Assistants, WebMD will supply UPMC Health Plan members with such information as the cost of medical services at various facilities, hospital quality ratings, a provider directory, and personalized recommendations on how to improve their own health.

[ To learn more about which medical apps doctors and patients are turning to, see 9 Mobile Health Apps Worth A Closer Look. ]

UPMC Health Plan has offered its members live, online chatting about insurance matters since 2010 and has had a relationship with WebMD for about seven years, according to Passavant. "This is the next evolution of their online health coaching program," he said.

The coaches help you set and meet small, attainable health goals—like taking the stairs at work --along the way to meeting major goals, like losing weight. UPMC Health Plan will work with plan sponsors to offer financial incentives to members to participate, or, in the case of people with individual policies, the insurer will give its own incentives.

"The vast majority of people who engage with these programs do so when they're incentivized to do so," Passavant told InformationWeek Healthcare. Employers might offer health insurance with a lower deductible for people who sign up for a smoking cessation program, for example.

UPMC Health Plan already has a rather unique product called a health incentive account that works like a health reimbursement account or a health savings account. You can track your incentives through the UPMC-branded Web portal.

The online option is intended to make healthcare more convenient. "You can't be in the doctor's office or on the phone with a health coach every day," Passavant noted. By paying closer attention to your health, you help prevent illness, while the insurance company benefits by not having to pay for extra doctor visits or hospital admissions.

An additional measure of convenience is on the way, as Passavant said to expect a UPMC Health Plan smartphone app in six to eight weeks.

"A mobile device is a much better platform for behavior change than the Web," Passavant said. A simple text message or phone call to remind you to take your medication, go to the gym, or make a doctor's appointment can help keep you healthy and out of the hospital. That leads to a better quality of life and lower overall healthcare costs.

The 2012 InformationWeek Healthcare IT Priorities Survey finds that grabbing federal incentive dollars and meeting pay-for-performance mandates are the top issues facing IT execs. Find out more in the new, all-digital Time To Deliver issue of InformationWeek Healthcare. (Free registration required.)

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