IBM’s Eat-to-Earn System Rewards Employees For Eating Right

Around the same time you were pondering a resolution to eat better in the new year, IBM was patenting an idea that might make that easier.

Long known for their incentive and technology-based approach to improving employees’ health as well as a value-based benefit approach to health care, IBM has developed a solution that guides people to better food choices based on their personal health, and then rewards them when they “do the right thing.”

An NBC Bay Area article summarizes how the system works:

…a computer system that can assign a health factor to a food item (such as an apple or a Twinkie) based on what the system knows about you, your health history, your exercise history and what you like to eat. For example, maybe you decide to have an apple and a Twinkie for lunch at work. You get some reward points for the apple, plus bonus points because the system notices that you haven’t been eating enough fruit recently. You don’t get anything for the Twinkie, and then according to the patent, all your points get revoked when the system somehow notices that you tried to ditch the apple in the trash can without eating it. We don’t know how IBM would know, but apparently they’d know.”

Some challenges Eat-to-Earn might address

I learned about the system via an email update from AHIP Wellness SmartBrief and a tweet from Paul Hebert. Paul asked what I thought about the system. There’s not a lot of detail in the publicly available information. Going from the cited articles, however, I think this system has potential as a way to passively guide people to food choices that match their personal profile risk. And for IBM, I imagine it has further potential as a product employers and others will purchase.

If you consider some of our current challenges with healthy eating and wellness efforts, this patent could address the following;

  • Help us pick the best foods for us. Because of how the system’s designed, it benefits those trying to lose or maintain weight and those trying to live with a chronic illness. Today, those trying to drop pounds rely on specious diets, prepackaged foods and, increasingly, health apps to simplify finding and sticking to healthier choices, while those living with a newly identified chronic condition, health risk or disease struggle to reconstruct their eating habits according to specific dietary limitations. Personalized guidance such as what’s offered here can be invaluable, particularly as it’s driven by our individual health profile and food likes and dislikes.
  • Make the best choice a more immediately gratifying one. We choose the Double Down over the turkey on whole wheat because the Double Down tastes better and the effect of the Double Down, besides a little heartburn and sluggishness, isn’t visible for years. Earning immediate incentives for healthier choices may counteract this inclination.
  • Turn our health data into useful information. One of the challenges with health risk assessments is that they’re personalized, but only to a degree. They applaud healthy behaviors, call out risk factors and cite actions to take to reduce any risk. They’re a terrific tool for starting a conversation with your doctor, but they’re limited in their ability to provide ongoing insight or instruction. If this system takes health risk assessment data and health records and turns both into a personalized, interactive resource center and information source, it’ll make them dynamic tools that tell us a story about our health and improve the value of health risk assessments.

Privacy concerns if system becomes employment requirement

Another article on the IBM approach says, “This is a win-win situation for IBM. They claim the investment that companies can implement turn key [SIC], and employees all around can work towards getting in good physical shape.” Presumably, the solution involves a computerized payment system built by IBM and ties into their ongoing interest in improving health care.

It’s hard to tell whether this is designed for in-house corporate cafeteria use or more broadly. I figure IBM’s currently piloting or will pilot this with its workforce and we’ll eventually see results published, maybe in a medical journal, as they’ve done in the past with their wellness rebate programs. Following that, perhaps we’ll see other employers offer this system — and hospitals and other venues too?

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When Paul Hebert asked me my opinion about the system, he shared his. He was concerned about the privacy intrusion, particularly if use of this system was an employment requirement.

We’re seeing a rise in no-hire tobacco policies and in companies considering a move to outcomes-based wellness, but I don’t see employers ready to move to this level of influence. What are your thoughts?

Fran Melmed will be speaking on “The Second-Generation Workplace Wellness Program” at the TLNT Transform conference in Austin, TX Feb. 26-28, 2012. Click here for more information on attending this event. 

This was originally published on Fran Melmed’s free-range communication blog.