Winning the Battle of the Bulge can be Harder than you Think.

Marty's Current Tummytar.

My Current Bellytar.

I have been invited to play a game on Facebook called Battle of the Bulge. No, this is not some WWII adventure game. It is a game where I try to keep extra weight off my waistline. Ah, sort of like real life.

I started out by answering a few humorously posed questions about my eating and exercise habits and my body type. From there, I was presented with a slightly overweight Avatar (aka “the Bellytar™”) whose weight I must now manage by making good choices when presented with diet and exercise options. To make it more fun, I can share some of my losses and gains with my Facebook friends who are also playing the game. And if I am really successful, I can end up on the “Champions of Chunk” page were I am ranked with other top players based on the number of days that I have been able to maintain my ideal weight. Right now the leader has a string of 99 days going and a very buff looking Bellytar. I’m jealous.

So who is behind this slightly addictive and educational Facebook application? It is actually the Louisville, Kentucky – based health care company, Humana, Inc., though there is no mention of the company on the game app.

Greg Matthews, director of consumer innovations at Humana says, “2009 is the year of the game.” The consumer innovations team is working on ways to use social media to get people more engaged in leading healthier lives.

“What we are attempting to do,” Greg said, “ is change people’s behavior by taking something that they are already having fun doing, like playing with Friends on Facebook, and making it more healthy.”

Battle of the Bulge, which launched to the public just before Christmas, already has over 700 players ranging from Microsoft employees to Major League Soccer players.

Greg explained that the Battle of the Bulge game on Facebook is part of an ongoing exploration process the Humana innovations team has undertaken to discover the best ways to use evolving forms of media to engage an increasingly web-savvy public.

So, after playing the game a few times over the last couple of days, I have drawn a few conclusions that seem to also apply to real life.

  1. Getting to my ideal body weight is not going to be easy. Just when I think I have it all figured out, I hit a roadblock by making a poor choice.
  2. Getting to my ideal weight is dependent on several factors including diet, exercise, and even the behavior of my friends.
  3. Once I reach my ideal weight it will take dedication and consistency to stay there. The good news is that I should have figured out the correct answers to all the questions by then, so it will mainly mean that I need to hit the site application once a day (like a gym) to stay where I need to be. But watch out! I am sure that missing a few days will have consequences.

Well, if I am any indication, this stuff can be effective. Now if you will excuse me, I need to shed a few more pounds. Humm… can any one tell which burns more calories: A) planting begonias or 2) polishing my phatmobile with a diaper. Ahgg… I don’t feel much like doing either one. Do I smell pizza?

Humana Innovation Center Using Social Media to Engage Consumers and Broaden the Meaning of the Brand.

This is the second post in my occasional series in the use of social media by health plans to engage their members to become healthier and better consumers of health care services. By social media, I am referring to activities that integrate technology, telecommunications and social interaction, and the construction of words, pictures, videos and audio.[1] In short, I am talking about blogging and the use of web sites like YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter.

Recently, I had the chance to talk with Greg Matthews, Director of Consumer Innovations at Humana Inc. Headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky, Humana is one of the nation’s largest publicly traded health and supplemental benefits companies, with approximately 11.7 million medical members. Humana offers a wide array of health and supplemental benefit plans for employer groups, government programs and individuals.

Greg said that one of Humana’s most widely-used social media programs has been the use of YouTube to host a number of videos that take a light-hearted approach to explaining complex health insurance plans and concepts. The channel called Stay Smart Stay Healthy contains links to a number of short videos with titles like Why is Health Care so Expensive? (202,000 views), and How Does Health Insurance Work? (79,000 views). So far, all the videos combined have been viewed over one million times. A similar program was launched in December to educate pre-retirees about their health care options. This retiree planning community is called REAL, and can be found at http://realforme.com/.

However, according to Greg, most of the social media experimentation currently taking place in the Humana Innovation Center has more to learning and more broadly branding the company than it does with specifically engaging with plan members to achieve tangible results.

For example, this past summer, Humana introduced Freewheelin. Jason Falls, the director of social media at a Louisville ad agency, writes extensively about Freewheelin in a post on his blog. In his post, Social Media Case Study: Humana’s Freewheelin. Jason described Freewheelin as “…a bicycle sharing program with a community of green- and health-friendly participants at its core. It’s not just a set of stations where you can rent a bike for a few hours in big cities. It’s that, but with the fundamental higher purpose of promoting better health for humans and the earth as the fabric that ties its users together.”

The program was kicked off this summer in Louisville and also during political conventions in Denver and Minneapolis. Greg’s group used a wide variety of social media vehicles including Meetup.com, a Facebook page, its own blog and a Twitter stream to build buzz about the program. And it worked; Greg told me that over 2,200 news stories were written about the program. But, as Jason Falls noted, it was really about more than just creating hype. The efforts in the convention cities alone resulted in eight days of rides, over 7,500 total rides, 41,000 miles ridden, 1.2 million calories burned and carbon offset of 14.6 metric tons.

I’ll share more of my discussion with Greg Matthews in upcoming posts. In the meantime, Greg and his colleagues are blogging about healthcare innovation at CrumpleItUp.com.


[1] Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_media

Top November Posts on the Health Plan Innovation Blog

For the month of November the Top Three posts on the Health Plan Innovation Blog were:

1. Highmark Issues Health Gift Card

2. Yes, we are expensive, but we do poor work

3. Humana Website is a Wiki for Health Care

Continued comments on these and any other posts are always welcome. To receive immediately updated headlines from the Health Innovation Blog, you can grab the blog RSS feed for your reader, or you may syndicate the feed on your Web site.

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Humana Website is a Wiki for Healthcare Reform

It was just in my last post that I mentioned Humana for their innovative cell phone technology designed to help people lose weight, but again this week Humana has hit the innovation radar with an announcement about the launch of a new website designed to get people communicating about ways to improve the quality and efficiency of the health care system and decrease the cost.

It really is a neat Web 2.0 (or is that Health 2.0) kind of idea. Create an online forum where all the stakeholders: individuals, employers, providers, and health plans can post ideas for improving the health care system. (Note that the site has not assigned the government a role in helping to solve this problem.) The website is called ChangeNow4Health and describes itself as being “a broad, grassroots coalition committed to improving the nation’s health care system through immediate action.” This “web-based coalition” is built on the social networking idea of communities of members who will address specific areas of improvement though blogs and online posts.

Acting as a sort of wiki for health care reform, ChangeNow4Health is intended to create the work space for interested parties to join and help create the solutions and the ultimate direction of the campaign. The concept is that site members will join “communities” where they can learn from each other and be part of coming up with what the site calls “realistic solutions” to the nation’s health care crisis.

Initially, the communities will focus on three areas of interest:

  1. Helping Consumers Make Smarter Health Care Decisions – Ensuring that consumers have the tools, the information, and the desire to take responsibility for their own health and to use health care resources wisely.
  2. Simplifying the Business of Health Care – Streamlining health care’s administrative and financial functions so that the system works more cost-effectively.
  3. Preventing Sickness and Maintaining Health – Changing individual behavior and clinical practice so that the system more effectively prevents disease from ruining health and prosperity.

Each of these three communities offers registered members the chance to post ideas and to comment on blogs posted for group. There is also a chance from everyone to participate in the writing of a book entitled “50 Ideas for Changing Health Today,” by posting ideas.

In addition to the user-generated site content, ChangeNow4Health has news feeds and articles describing some of the issues facing the health care system as well as examples of success stories.

I have participated in past efforts to bring together the stakeholders to solve the health care crisis. Most of these well-intentioned efforts have failed because they just required too much time and effort on the part of the participants who had to give up their day-to-day business to attend meetings. Maybe a web-based forum will have the ability to overcome some of these barriers and produce some real solutions. At any rate, give Mike McCallister and his team at Humana credit for trying something new.

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Call Me When It’s Time to Eat

I wrote last week in this blog about the somewhat curious health plan innovation offered up by the Pittsburgh-based health plan Highmark. You may remember that Highmark announced that it was using pre-paid card technology to sell health care gift cards to be used for everything from Lasik surgery to making co-pays.

This week Humana announced an innovation that struck me as a little off the wall even though I had been aware of this venture for a couple of years now. Sensei Inc., a joint venture between Humana Inc. and Card Guard AG, introduced a new health and weight management program that uses cell phones as personal coaches. The program, called “Sensei for Weight Loss,” currently is available to Sprint and AT&T customers.

According to a story in the Louisville Business Journal, users go online to enter personal information such as desired weight, food preferences, meal times and exercise routines, and the program generates a customized nutrition and fitness plan. Throughout the day, the program delivers messages to the user’s cell phone, such as weekly shopping lists, meal recommendations and motivational tips. The program also records the user’s eating choices and fitness activities and tracks progress toward goals.

I personally am not sure that I want that close of a relationship with my cell phone, but for people who need and want this type of monitoring, Sensei for Weight Loss could have an impact on health care costs.

Consider that a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report outlining projections for long-term health care spending and reviewing the factors that contribute to growth in spending was also released last week. The report projects that, in the absence of changes in federal law, total spending on health care would rise from 16 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2007 to 25 percent in 2025, 37 percent in 2050, and 49 percent in 2082.

The report discussed two potential approaches to reducing health care spending: (1) generating more information about the relative effectiveness of medical treatments; and (2) changing the incentives for providers and consumers in the supply and demand of health care. CBO noted that some analysts have advocated significant expansions of disease management and care coordination as mechanisms for reducing costs.

With those sobering facts in mind, maybe a cell phone that monitors and promotes healthy behaviors is not so far fetched. In deed, it might be exactly what the doctor ordered.

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