Staying in shape can be tough, and getting into shape is even tougher. That’s why you see companies like Walgreens, with its Walk With Walgreens program, offering people incentives to get up and be more active. Virgin HealthMiles, a part of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, does something similar by offering employee health programs that actually pay people to get moving. On average, about 50% of employees participate in the Virgin HealthMiles Pay-for-Prevention program that, according to the company’s website, helps reduce medical costs and improves employee productivity and satisfaction.
Sramana Mitra: Hi, Tom. Before we get going with a discussion of trends, I’d like to set the context for our audience about you and your background, your company’s activities, and specifically, what vantage point you are coming from.
Tom Abshire: I’ve been with Virgin HealthMiles for nearly four years. Before that, I spent the early part of my career in technology, quite a bit in cloud computing in its earlier forms. I started off working for companies like Hewlett-Packard and Techtronics in the engineering and commercial computing organizations, working with computers and printers and different kinds of peripherals.
During the later part of my time with Hewlett-Packard, I was working on a new channel model. We were trying to create distributed CRM and partner management capabilities to a wide range of channel partners focused on small and medium businesses. We were looking at a number of solutions from companies that were providing those kinds of solutions, like Siebel and SAP at that time, and trying to do it from what was then called the ASP model but ran into all kinds of cost and technology issues. That sparked my interest in cloud computing, CRM, and software.
From there I moved on to RightNow Technologies, which was one of the early leaders in on-demand customer service and CRM, and was able to be a big part of the growth and IPO of that business. I was with RightNow Technologies from 2000 to 2005. There’s a large part of that validation model and its evolution over that time. Greg Gianforte was the first person to be product strategy and product management. Greg and I worked closely on that.
From there, I moved to Microsoft and worked in a couple of different areas with contributors to their cloud computing strategy. I was looking at their theorems on how to provide a more unified experience across different organizations and different CRM applications they had at that time. And then I was working on future plans in terms of how our traditional Microsoft franchises like Office and other business solutions were going to migrate to a cloud-based world. I’d been working on how those products were meant to evolve.
After completing some of those projects, I ran into Virgin HealthMiles, which was, to me, a very interesting company because it was dealing with a hard problem: How do engage people and change the way the concept of health and wellness is delivered, and have some entry. In the early stages of their development, I came across interesting models in measuring and using data to help change behavior and promote health in individuals by providing insights into what was going on with the population’s health. The key change in the approach to health that Virgin was making at that time was focusing not just on those who already needed healthcare but looking at problems from the population’s health management standpoint. Most of the cost estimates were that 75% of the increases in costs per year to provide healthcare are driven by preventable, lifestyle-related diseases. But how do you reduce the instances of those diseases? How do you engage people in the handful of healthful habits that in most cases actually can prevent 70%, 80% or even 90% of incidences of type 2 diabetes or coronary artery disease?
Virgin’s been in the health business for quite a long time. More recently, we’ve been looking at how lifestyle impacts our health and well-being, and Virgin HealthMiles is a company that’s designed to take on that challenge of preventing lifestyle-related diseases and help people draw lines between their activities and their health outcomes. We really engage people in good health. We’ve found in our business that engagement and understanding are very consumer-like problems. These are problems Virgin can address, such as some of the big stumbling blocks to better health outcomes and better cost outcomes for employers who pay for so much of our health care in this country.