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Executives at New York-based publishing house John Wiley & Sons Inc. tried with little success to get employees enthused about their benefits and health care, from a nurse hotline to a disease management program to an employee assistance program, but nothing seemed to spark interest.

The first year after its debut in the early 1990s, just 52 of Wiley’s 2,500 U.S.-based employees called the 24-hour hotline. Last year, just two employees called, despite the fact that many of the employees suffer from diabetes and other chronic conditions. Not surprisingly, the hotline was dropped. A disease management program came next. Only 12 people responded.

“One year we got it to 18, but 18 out of 2,500 isn’t much,” said Patrick Nevins, Wiley’s director of benefits. “While some of these programs sound good on paper, colleagues didn’t seem to be interested. We also have an EAP, and while people had positive things to say about these programs, not enough were using it.”

Employers like Wiley seem to be on an endless quest to get employees to care more about their benefits and health care, giving rise to a booming multibillion-dollar wellness industry and an array of online tools and gadgets that help workers track steps, choose benefits or pick a doctor. And yet, employee engagement remains a frustrating mystery to many employers. But finding a way to connect with employees is becoming increasingly important as companies usher in an era of health care consumerism.

Passive patients and apathetic employees who for decades chose their benefits on a sort-of autopilot mode now are being asked to start thinking like smart shoppers when it comes to their health care. The philosophy of following doctor’s orders and not knowing the true cost of an emergency room visit is giving way to informed purchases based on factors like price, outcomes and negotiation — much like buying a car. Experts say this is the future of employer-sponsored health care, but just how prepared employees are for this transformation is unclear.

“It’s like you’ve been driving an automatic your whole life and now you’ve been given a stick shift,” said author and consultant Jim Skinner, president of JMS Benefits Solutions in central Texas. Skinner founded the Smart Patient Academy, a division of his consulting firm that specializes in teaching employers and employees how to use consumer-driven health plans — high-deductible plans that were designed to give consumers more control over their health care decisions.

“The holy grail is employee engagement, because without it there’s no management of cost and no responsibility on the part of the consumer,” he said. “Corporations are shifting risk to their employees and giving them little in the way of tools. They might offer a price shopping service but that’s just one part of it.

“As soon as you get into a chronic condition, your focus on money starts decreasing and your focus on outcome starts increasing. And when you get into life and death you don’t give a damn about the money. You’re talking to different consumers with different perspectives, and employers need to know how to communicate with all of them.”

Despite the failed programs, Wiley executives believe they’ve begun to solve the problem in the form of an online tool called WiserHealth, which matches patients with treatments that are most likely to work. Wiley launched the cloud-based platform created by Washington, D.C.-based tech firm WiserTogether Inc. on Jan. 1, and in the first two months more than 450 employees had logged on, Nevins said. WiserHealth allows consumers to research medical conditions, find the treatments and providers with the best outcomes, learn how much it will cost them, and what patients with similar conditions have to say about the treatment, among other information.

“I believe that most of us are on information overload,” Nevins said. “Most of us just Google [conditions], and we’re not so sure about the reliability of the information we get.”

Nevins said that WiserHealth encourages employees to “become active participants in decisions about their medical care,” by understanding all their options.

Shub Debgupta, the founder and CEO of WiserTogether Inc., describes WiserHealth as the “eHarmony” of health care decision tools. In fact, it was modeled after the dating service website, which uses an algorithm to determine compatible matches. WiserHealth offers information on the most effective treatments for a particular condition, like carpal tunnel syndrome, and surveys thousands of patients and doctors with the same condition about which treatment they chose, what the side effects were and so on. It is the platform’s ability to collect data from external sources like random surveys of patients and providers that sets WiserHealth apart from other tools that focus on one aspect like price transparency, Debgupta said. WiserHealth also provides cost information and lets users know which treatments are covered by their health plan.

“Will it work for me personally? That is the piece that’s missing from the health care system,” Debgupta said. “Trial and error costs the payer and the system a tremendous amount of money.”

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