By Sam Holliday

The first quarter is when benefits managers traditionally begin to scope out their offerings for the following year. For employers, new data makes it clear that one of the priority areas of emphasis for 2024 program design must be the digestive health of their teams.

Fortunately, this is an area where emerging HR policies and health plans can make a significant difference for employees while helping to dramatically cut costs and deliver an immediate boost to productivity.


Digestive health issues hit the bottom line

A 2023 trend report from the Employer Health Innovation Roundtable (EHIR) named gastrointestinal (GI) health as one of its top emerging cost drivers for employers and highlighted that employers are focused on benefits that show immediate ROI through cost savings. This builds on data from earlier in the year from UnitedHealthcare showing that digestive health claims are a top five cost category for companies.

This makes sense as 25% of working-age Americans have a diagnosed GI condition, and twice as many people suffer from GI issues versus diabetes in this country. Overall direct health care costs for GI diseases are estimated to be $136 billion each year – more than heart disease ($113B) or mental health disorders ($99B). And these stats don’t even take into account the millions more who suffer in silence or who remain undiagnosed.

The costs to businesses can extend beyond direct health care costs as issues like chronic constipation, diarrhea, pain and nausea can all impact work performance and weigh on the bottom line. Inadequate support from employers can lead to extended suffering, mounting costs and lost productivity, and eventually worker dissatisfaction. A recent study on IBS suffering found that businesses lost an average of 2 workdays per month to employees struggling with digestive health issues.


Virtual care delivers medical and financial relief

Traditional GI care alone does not solve the needs of these workers. Practices face a three to nine month backlog of patient demand and are not set up to provide the type or frequency of support that is needed by most people. As a result many sufferers seek relief through expensive, and often unnecessary, visits to their local hospital emergency room. In fact, in 2018, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and digestive disorders were the most common specific reasons for treat-and-release ER visits.

Fortunately, the underlying problem is solvable, and new whole person care protocols and hybrid models combining traditional GI care with virtual support are proving successful in treating GI issues.

The evidence clearly demonstrates that dietary changes, psychological interventions and behavioral health support are needed to mitigate symptoms and give patients back control of their lives. A recent published study found that integrated care protocols combining these interventions with traditional GI care saved more than $10,000 in total health care costs after six months and that employees reported 1.3 fewer missed workdays per month.

The virtual nature of these programs and their growing integration with payer plans and value-based contracting provide companies with powerful and economically advantageous new ways to support employees with these conditions. Employees appreciate the convenience of virtual care, too. For employers looking to get ahead of this growing cost center for their business, there are easy steps HR teams can take now to deliver results in the near term.


Create a GI-friendly workplace

The stigma around these conditions is lifting as evidenced by the number of #GutTalk videos populating TikTok. This more easily opens the door to some near-term workplace and policy improvements that can signal support for employees such as redesigned floor-to-ceiling bathroom stalls, higher quality personal care products and flexible remote workdays for those dealing with flare-ups. While they may not address the root causes of conditions, they help support productivity and let workers know they are seen and heard.


Institute enhanced benefits programs

Virtual specialty care providers work directly with employers or through their health plans to augment GI benefits. Many employers may already be using similar programs for mental or women’s health support, offering a readymade model that can be extended to digestive health.

For companies, virtual GI offerings can deliver effective wrap-around relief to traditional GI health care through enhanced dietary and psychological therapies. This powerful approach contributes to a company’s financial performance by delivering more care, more effectively and for less cost – helping to relieve symptoms, boost productivity and aid employees in reducing costly ER visits, testing and pharmaceutical interventions.


Track for impact

There is an old adage that says “what gets measured, gets managed.” Given the breadth and diversity of GI issues, it’s important that employers work with teams and benefits providers to get a more accurate understanding of the true cost and impact of these conditions to their individual businesses.

For stigmatized conditions like digestive health, it’s often hard to have an accurate understanding of the scope of the problem. Employers must work hard to de-stigmatize these issues by openly talking about employee needs and providing robust support programs. That approach can help create the trust necessary for effective monitoring and addressing of worker health needs.

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