Podcast: Program Implementation with Nikki McGrath

In this episode of the Well-being Experts podcast, we’re discussing how to successfully implementing a wellness program. We sat down with Nikki McGrath, Director of Member Experience at Onlife Health, to talk about all things implementation, including how it works best and the key aspects to be thinking about for both health plans and employers. She begins by describing a step-by-step approach to the implementation process.

“Onlife has been around for 20 years and we have successfully implemented many large employer groups and several health plans. And our implementation satisfaction scores show that – well over 90% satisfaction rate. So I think again that speaks volumes too for our ability to execute on that, and those are the types of things that you want to look for.”




Want to dive deeper into this Well-being Experts podcast? Here's the full transcript from our discussion with Nikki McGrath, Director of Member Experience for Onlife Health.


Nikki McGrath: Onlife has been around for 20 years and we have successfully implemented many large employer groups and several health plans. And our implementation satisfaction scores show that – well over 90% satisfaction rate. So I think again that speaks volumes too for our ability to execute on that, and those are the types of things that you want to look for.

Host: This is the Well-being Experts podcast and you just heard from Nikki McGrath, Director of Member Experience at Onlife Health. We had the chance to sit down to discuss all things implementation, including how it works best and the aspects to be thinking about for both health plans and employers. She starts off here with a step-by-step approach in the implementation process.

For more content like this, go to onlifehealth.com/resources. Enjoy the conversation!

Nikki: Hello. My name is Nichole McGrath. I’m Director of Member Experience at Onlife Health. I also work closely with our account management and implementation teams to make sure that our clients get off on the right foot with their wellness program.

Host: To start us off, let’s look at the steps in the implementation process. What are the main deliverables as well as the challenges with making all of the pieces fit together?

Nikki: There are a lot of pieces...

Host: A lot of pieces.

Nikki: ...to fit together, yes. And it’s kind of a loaded question because part of implementation is really defining what those deliverables are. So when we talk about a step-by-step process, I’ll start there. It starts with meeting with the client and really clarifying/understanding what the client’s goals are. So not only their overarching corporate goals, but also what their wellness philosophy is, what do they want to get out of their wellness program? What does wellness mean to them and what are the components of that program that are going to be appropriate for their population?

So after identifying those goals, and then also I’ll add defining what success looks like for those goals, let’s make sure we know what the outcomes are. We put together a pretty robust timeline with milestones all the way through rollout and beyond. So we want to make sure we understand what Onlife is responsible for, we want to understand what pieces we’re going to need to get from the client to have a successful implementation and rollout.

Part of that is identifying the communication plan. It’s identifying incentives. Another big piece is understanding what other vendors we’re going to be working with. I think one of the strengths of Onlife is our ability to integrate with other partners and to help our members connect with other resources that are available to them. So that’s a big piece of it is bringing other vendor to the table and understanding how we’re going to communicate with them. It’s understanding the reporting piece of it and all of these are milestones, these are all pieces that are put into that implementation timeline that we’re going to follow through rollout.

Host: So before the timeline is even created, all this implementation, it starts well before the contract is signed. If you can take me back before all this begins, what is involved in planning during the RFP stages?

Nikki: At that point, it’s understanding what program components are going to be in place. Is it going to be health assessment and is coaching going to be a part of that? And if coaching, is it going to be telephonic and secure message or are we going to be on-site facilitating that. Is there going to be an on-site fitness center? How about biometric screenings? Device integration, all of those pieces. So let’s identify what components are going to be in that program. If there is customizations to the programs which most of our clients – especially health plans are interested in – we want to make sure that we’re managing this program underneath their wellness brand. And so, it’s identifying the customizations, the configurations that are needed.

And at that point during RFP, it’s also understanding what resources we’re going to need. If this is going to be a really big project, we’re going to need to ramp up our staffing. And so, we want to make sure – and I’m speaking specifically if health coaching is a part of that – we’re going to possibly need to hire some more health coaches. We want to get ahead of that and make sure we’re hiring some really great candidates and then also getting them up to speed on our processes and our products. So, that when this client does roll out, our entire team have become experts on that client’s specific program.

So those are the pieces that we can get ahead of. Those are the pieces that we can do during RFP before we even sign the contract and so that when we do sign the contract, we’re in a really great place to get into the nitty-gritty and the details of the client’s program.

Host: For this entire series so far, a key ingredient, of course, it’s about communication, it’s about relationships. And as we’re talking about implementation and the checklist that goes with this, aside from operational deliverables, could you tell me more about the relationship building that has to happen and how you build trust and keep these lines of communications flowing?

Nikki: I’d say that’s one of Onlife’s strengths is our account management team and account relationship building and relationship managing that we do throughout this entire process. And that, as you can imagine, that starts very early on. It’s about connecting the right account management team with that client. Making sure that they feel comfortable. Making sure that they feel confident in the account manager, but also in Onlife’s ability to execute on the things that we say that we’re going to execute when we say we’re going to execute on them.

And so, we start that relationship very early on with ongoing and recurring meetings. Again, it’s just about getting to know the client, getting to know the client’s program, and the stakeholders that we’re going to be working with. And that doesn’t stop after rollout. That continues throughout the entire program. We are continuously evaluating the client’s needs, and as we get further into a program, let’s evaluate how we’re doing. Are we delivering what we need to deliver? Is what we thought we needed to deliver really being effective? If it is, great, let’s keep working on that, and if it isn’t, let’s re-evaluate and let’s collaborate to think of some other things that we can do to make it successful.

Host: Based on what you’ve seen in the industry, I would love to talk next about turning pitfalls into successes. Are there two or three big mistakes that are made during implementations and, of course, what are those? But more importantly, how to avoid those?

Nikki: Yeah. So two things. I think the first is we can really complicate things from the client-level and then also from the member-level, if we have a really confusing program design. We want to give our members a lot of options, and we want to meet them where they are and give them the tools that they’re going to need, and it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach by any means. So, we want to have the options, but we also want to make it simple. We want to give them the tools at their fingertips and make it easy for them to engage in their program. And so that’s one of them, is just making sure that the program isn’t too complicated. That the member clearly knows how they can get their incentives and that sort of thing.

And then to go along with that, it’s really about communication. And once you’ve identified what that program structure is going to look like, making sure that you’re effectively communicating that to members and that you’re communicating it very early on. The time to do that is before rollout. It’s not enough just to roll a program out and to say, “Hey, here are all these programs that are available to you.” Before that happens, we want to be communicating to clients and also to members that they really understand what the value is of that program. So that when those programs become available, they’re ready to get started.

Host: With an implementation that’s going to bring large technical aspects, are there technical aspects that might dominate the implementation process more, due to its complexity?

Nikki: Sure. So, if you can imagine implementing is something as big as a wellness program for a large health plan with potentially millions of members, there’s going to be a lot of data flowing back and forth between Onlife, as the wellness provider, and the client, the health plan. And so, that can be from – because there’s product integration, because there’s a number of vendors involved, and maybe there’s even – we’re swapping out another vendor, and so we’re dealing with the incumbent’s data and getting our hands on that so that can flow into our system. And so there are a lot of pieces at play here. And so, that’s certainly a big piece of implementation is identifying all of those data pieces, and then being able to integrate that into our platform so that a member and the client have a seamless experience and we can pick up where the other vendor left off.

Host: With the data exchange, there’s a lot there that needs to be managed and implemented smoothly.

Nikki: There’s also the benefits piece. That’s a big piece. So once we get all these other pieces – the products and the vendors and the configurations and health assessment data, biometric screening data – there’s the incentive piece and that’s a big one as well. And so, that means identifying not only the type of incentive, that’s probably a pretty easy decision to be had, but then the reporting going forward and how do we get the data back to the client in a way that’s going to be meaningful so that they can effectively manage their incentive program for their members.


Well-being Experts is supported by Onlife Health. Onlife Health is a comprehensive wellness provider serving health plans and large employers nationwide. With over 10 million members and 20 years of industry experience, Onlife takes a high-touch, high-tech approach to wellness that creates real results for your population. Find out more at onlifehealth.com.


What do you think is more challenging? An implementation involving takeaway business or implementing a brand new wellness program?

Nikki: So as you can imagine, they both have their challenges. With implementing a brand new wellness program, you’re often dealing with administrators that may not have a clear understanding of what they want to accomplish in a program – which actually presents a really great opportunity because then we can come in as the experts. And what we’ve seen work well in the past and we can make some really defined recommendations that hopefully are very well-received. And so, in that way, it’s an opportunity but you’re starting from scratch. You may not have a lot of resources to deal with. Or maybe there aren’t a number of programs in place that we can leverage with our program as well. So it can be tricky with new business.

But I would say the takeaway business is probably more challenging. And that’s because we’re taking away business for a reason. It’s probably because the other vendor wasn’t successful for whatever reason. And so, you may be having to unwind some programs that are in place that members are already used to. Maybe they weren’t great programs, but the members probably have some level of confidence in being able to engage in them. So you’re having to kind of unwind, undo some of those things.

But you’re also dealing with a lot of preconceived notions from members, but then also from the client and the administrators that you’re working with. They may have a bad taste in their mouth about wellness programs in general, or they may have expectations about what we can or what we can’t accomplish. And so we really have to deal with that and reset expectations. And it can take some time to win them over, but with the clear communication, and the relationship building, it’s usually just a matter of resetting expectations and helping the client feel comfortable and feel confident in Onlife and what we’re able to execute.

Host: After talking a bit about some challenges that might have occurred from a previous vendor, what happens when an implementation doesn’t go well? So, this I’m sure could potentially jeopardize the rollout dates. You’re typically not going to change the rollout dates, right? Or maybe you would. What happens here?

Nikki: So this is why that timeline, implementation timeline, is so important having to...

Host: Yes, you emphasize that so much early on.

Nikki: I do.

Host: That’s good.

Nikki: Having those milestones, having ownership over each of those milestones and having some clear-cut dates around those milestones. If an implementation and rollout starts to fall apart, it starts to unwind when those milestones aren’t being met consecutively or consistently, I should say. And if that does happen – you’re absolutely right. In most cases, we’re not going to change a rollout. We’ve probably already communicated that rollout date. We don’t want to go back from that. Members are expecting it, clients are expecting it. And so usually what we’ll do is have a sit down and kind of have to re-prioritize what components are going to be most important in that program. And then resetting those expectations, and then making sure that we have a successful plan going forward, and one that both sides – the client and Onlife – feel comfortable meeting.

Host: What do you think are some of the most important lessons on doing implementations with both health plans and employers? And you can start with whichever one you want to.

Nikki: So, lessons learned from working with employer groups or health plans for implementation. With employer groups, they tend to have one strategy, one overall wellness philosophy. And so, it’s really about making sure that we understand what that is, what the goals are, and how we can help them to achieve that. And being very, very specific around that.

With health plans, it’s a very different experience because health plans are representing many, many groups and millions of members. And so, there isn’t going to be one clear-cut strategy and one philosophy. And so, in that case, it’s a matter of having a more broad-based program, one that can be applied more easily to a number of different groups. But you still want it to be meaningful; you don’t want it to be a bland experience, a bland program. So, you just need it to be flexible enough that it can fit different groups and different members.

Host: What are some of the bigger pain points for health plans? I know we just talked about health plans, but with their unique needs, what kind of pain points do they have, how should a wellness provider address those, if they can?

Nikki: So, I just alluded to this a bit is that the health plans are representing a number of different groups. And so, they have small groups, large groups, very sophisticated programs, less sophisticated programs. Those are some of the pain points is again, being flexible enough that you can work with both ends of the spectrum.

Of course, you’re also dealing with – in most cases, our health plan partners have a number of other vendors in place. They have a lot of resources that are available to them and to their members. And so, the pain points come up in trying to integrate those. We want to fit into their brand and fit into their overall member experience. We want to be a piece of that, and we want that to be seamless. So we want to integrate with the other vendors, and I think that’s a pain point. We talked about the data integration, making sure that that data can flow in and through Onlife, so that we can facilitate that.

Host: How should a health plan analyze a potential wellness vendor to know if they’re going to be good to implement with?

Nikki: I think the best way to do this is to look at their track record. How long have they been around? How successful have they been at implementing large groups, specifically health plans? Because as we’ve talked about, it’s a completely different beast – implementing a health plan versus a very large employer, even. And so you want to make sure that they have that experience, that they’ve been successful.

And then also getting references. If you can talk to somebody that has worked with that vendor, and if they’ve had a really great experience, I think that speaks volumes. So Onlife has been around for 20 years and we have successfully implemented many large employer groups and several health plans. And our implementation satisfaction scores show that. Well over 90% satisfaction rate. So, I think, again, that speaks volumes, too, for our ability to execute on that. And those are the types of things that you want to look for.

Host: Earlier you mentioned something about this process and, not only that there goes a lot of prep work into it, but it’s a long process. And so, it would seem that the implementation process, it never ends. Does it ever end? So after roll-out, you’re implementing new programs. That includes things like challenges, maybe different apps. Does it ever end? What’s it? How would you respond to that?

Nikki: No, it never ends. You’re right.

Host: I thought that might be the case.

Nikki: Yeah. It’s an ongoing process because it’s a relationship. It is Onlife establishing that relationship with the client. Again, making sure it’s a successful implementation, a successful rollout, and then not stopping there. It’s continuing to evaluate the needs of the client and of the population, and both will likely change. The population demographics may change or the overall needs and health risk factors of the population may change. And we need to be agile enough and responsive enough to be able to adapt to that. And so it’s ongoing, and that relationship is such an important piece of that so we can make sure that we are facilitating that relationship.

Host: Thank you so much for sharing your story. Thank you so much for talking a little bit about implementation. I know it can be pretty complex, but I really enjoyed chatting with you today. I hope we can do it again soon.

Nikki: Thanks. Me, too.

Host: Thank you to today’s guest, and a big thank you to you for listening along with us. Well-Being Experts is brought to you by Onlife Health, a comprehensive wellness solutions company that has spent years working with health plans and large employers nationwide.


Today’s podcast and additional perspectives from the Well-being Experts can be found at onlifehealth.com/resources. We welcome your comments, questions, feedback, all the above at engage@onlifehealth.com