Digital Innovation Is Already Having a Major Impact on Benefit Plans

July, 2016
Author: Brian Lindenberg

Digital innovations are transforming health care in Canada, with huge implications for benefit plan sponsors and the people they serve. According to MaRS – one of Canada’s preeminent innovation hubs – there are between 800 and 1,000 health-care-related technology start-ups in Canada today. With investment in research and development by the health information and communications sector expected to increase significantly over the next three years, health-care transformation will continue at an accelerated pace, creating even more new players and options to choose from.

The changes will be profound. Currently, Canada’s health-care system focuses predominantly on providing acute care – dealing with patients when they are sick or choose to access the system.  But digital innovation is creating a system that will focus more on prevention and predictive health care, will be easier to access, and will – it is hoped – keep costs under better control. Among other things, digital innovation will be able to:

  • Improve access to health care by making it easier to book medical appointments and to access health records;
  • Reduce demands on the system by promoting prevention of illness or injury through education and the promotion of healthy living;
  • Provide diagnostic tools to aid in the assessment of health or illness and guide appropriate treatment in a more timely and cost-effective way;
  • Facilitate predictive modelling related to health so individuals can modify their behaviour well in advance of the onset of disease; and  
  • Compile and aggregate data to allow individuals, health-care professionals, hospitals, pharmacies, employers and other stakeholders to use that data to make better decisions about how to manage health care and related costs.

To the extent that the public health-care system can embrace digital innovation, benefit plans will also need to adapt and integrate with that new system. This could take some time to fully unfold, but one area that is already seeing some change is the vendor landscape within the benefits world.

For most benefits plan sponsors today, an insurer – and perhaps a handful of other organizations – manages their health plan, handling the interface with employees and health-care providers, paying claims, and helping to manage the cost of a claim if asked to do so by the sponsor. The insurer also provides the data to help facilitate decision-making related to plan management and funding.

Digital innovation means benefits plan sponsors may in future rely less upon their insurers for these services, plugging instead into one or more of the new health-solution providers that offer better, more customizable solutions. One example could be to turn to one of many new solution providers in the disease management space rather than rely upon an insurer to exclusively help to manage a specific chronic illness.

One of the biggest challenges for benefits plan sponsors is how to make sense of the constantly evolving vendor landscape and find the right solutions for their specific companies. And there is much to consider.

With so many new players and options, where do you start? Will it fit the company culture and your broader strategy? How much will it cost? And what if it fails?


At Mercer, we’re using a multi-faceted approach to harness the benefits of digital innovation. We start by evaluating emerging trends and solutions, then identify leading vendors that are driving change in health care, and develop a marketplace perspective on best-in-class approaches and differentiators. By vetting new solution providers and monitoring the ones that offer interesting but as-yet unproven concepts, we can then actively investigate potential opportunities that benefits plan sponsors can test through pilot projects designed to fit their – and their employees’ – specific needs.

To date, our Health Innovation Labs have researched more than 50 health-solution providers, many of which didn’t exist just two years ago. And with the landscape changing so quickly, many more new providers pop up on a weekly basis, so the evaluation and identification of potential new vendors is an ongoing, dynamic process. What’s clear already, however, is that this fast changing environment is creating tremendous opportunities for benefit plan sponsors to differentiate their benefit plans and potentially incorporate new and best-in-class solution providers into the mix.

Digital innovation has the potential to fundamentally change health care in Canada – both from a public and a private health perspective – and it’s already happening. Opportunities already exist to begin incorporating digital innovation into the provision of health solutions. Benefit plan sponsors may sometimes feel a bit overwhelmed by the rapid pace of change, but there is no doubt that this is a very exciting time that holds great promise for a better, more cost-effective health system that benefits everyone.

Contributed by: Brian Lindenberg, Senior Partner, Health & Benefits Leader, Mercer Canada

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