When friends and family ask me about working at Fern, one of the first questions I get is, “How can an app help back pain?”

Fair question – and one that’s more important now than ever. Musculoskeletal employer programs and apps are relatively new, but are critical to closing gaps in care that people are experiencing because of COVID-19. Orthopedic surgeons are expecting 120% of their normal volume in surgeries at the end of this year – unless another outbreak pushes care back again. Surgery also isn’t the best approach for most people with back pain, but as time goes on and symptoms worsen without access to physical therapy, this option can become more likely. People in pain need a way to access care now, and employers can help.

At Fern, we bring together a few different clinically-validated approaches to chronic low back pain. Our digital  program, available through employers, includes exercise therapy, pain neuroscience education, and health coaching.

Exercise therapy is like an exercise program a physical therapist would prescribe for chronic low back pain. We also include pain neuroscience education articles and training. Mental health care is also a recommended first-line approach to chronic back pain.

So how do these pieces work together digitally? At Fern, our goal is to get members feeling better, faster, through a personalized approach – so we start by asking questions.

Step 1: We assess the severity of the pain and check for red flags.

Like any health program, it’s important to first make sure the program is safe for each participant. To start, we screen out those who need immediate medical attention. We may ask about recent symptoms, current medications, and medical history. Those who are medically appropriate for a digital program will move on to the next step. For those who are not, we recommend they seek follow-up care from a healthcare provider.

We also ask participants about their thoughts and feelings related to their pain. Negative thought patterns and attitudes may slow recovery. It’s important to know whether these participants may need extra support.

At Fern, we charge employers only if an employee makes it through the screening process and enrolls.

Step 2: Health coaches reach out to help new members get started.

Even in a digital program, having the opportunity to talk with a real person is still critical. At Fern Health, members kick off the program with a personalized conversation with their health coach. On their initial call, members discuss their goals and challenges. Their health coach is also available throughout the program to answer questions and offer support.

Step 3: Members begin their personalized exercise program.

Based on the information they share in the screening questions and their initial conversation with their health coach, Fern members then receive a set of personalized exercise videos and learning materials. The program will modulate to make the next set of exercises more or less challenging based on their feedback. Any time they have questions, their health coach is available to help.

“Whether a person is continuing with an exercise program after a receiving care from a physical therapist or is starting a new exercise program, in order to get the most out of the program, it is critical to complete all the exercises within the two-to-three month program. However, that’s easier said than done,” says Meredith Christiansen, DPT, PhD, clinical research scientist at Fern Health. “Videos specifically designed to address back pain are easier to follow and improve the experience, and people are more inclined to complete the program.”

Step 4: Members learn more about their pain.

Chronic back pain is notoriously difficult to treat. There are often multiple causes and more than one way to treat it. Psychological factors are often involved and under-treated, as well.

In other words, back pain programs aren’t one-size-fits-all. It’s important that virtual options incorporate different methods in one place, too. To that end, the Fern Health program incorporates pain neuroscience education and pain-relief skill building along with the exercise program.

Promoting digital programs for back pain in the workplace

With digital health , some of the normal barriers are removed, like getting to a physical location. But one significant challenge remains: Awareness.

While COVID-19 put telemedicine in the spotlight, recent surveys show that awareness remains an issue. In a healthinsurance.com survey, 67% of respondents did not receive information from their regular doctors or their insurance companies about telemedicine services.

When launching a new program, employers can take a few key approaches to promoting the program and increasing awareness. Ideally, your digital provider will make it easy for members to enroll.

Compile answers to frequently asked questions from employees

Even before launching a new program, consider what questions your employees will have about the services. What costs are employees responsible for? Do they need to have a certain kind of phone or computer to access the service? Are domestic partners and spouses covered under the benefit, too? Consider anticipating questions in the information you provide. For example, highlight if the program is free for employees to use.

Identify evangelists to help spread the word.

Wellness champions at your company can help encourage engagement with employee benefits. For a remote or digital program, consider enlisting employees who enjoy social media and digital promotion, too. These digital evangelists are also helpful when promoting a benefit among remote workers. Provide your digital team with materials they can easily share on social media.

Host a virtual program launch.

Wellness fair canceled? Organize an all-staff meeting to share information about programs that are available virtually. Demonstrate the program, answer questions, and consider engaging employees using polls and Q&As during the call. Make the recording available for those who couldn’t attend, and promote it via email.

Don’t stop at one promotion.

In marketing, research suggests that consumers need to see ads for a product around seven times before taking action. The same adage holds true for benefits communications. Continue promoting the program in internal newsletters and on your company intranet. Is the program starts before or after open-enrollment, but isn’t dependent on it? Re-share the details around open enrollment when employees are most likely to have benefits on the mind.

Digital programs are particularly valuable now, with so many employees working remotely and unable to access in-person care. Want to learn more about the Fern Health program? Get in touch below and we’ll share how your company can get started.

Learn how Fern Health can support low back health at your company.

Get in touch, and we’ll share more about Fern.