Everywhere outside of health care, the consumer is in the driver’s seat. From Angie’s List to Yelp to Uber, consumers have never had more tools, and more ability, to get what they want and need.  But “health care is different.” Although 72 percent of Internet users have searched for health information in the past year, many consumers find health care lagging behind in supporting their needs for information and support. The good news is this is changing — fast. A new report published in this month’s Health Affairs describes how health plans and other payers can use patient engagement strategies and financial incentives to engage consumers to improve their health while lowering costs.

We’ve found (along with many others) that patient engagement — the  actions that people take to better control their health and benefit from care — is crucial to achieving better health outcomes and a more efficient health system. But we’ve also found that while there’s great promise in patient engagement, a serious gap exists between that promise and current reality.  And payers, along with care providers and consumer groups, can play an important role in closing this gap.

UnitedHealthcare Experience Illustrates How Payers Can Enable Patient Engagement,” published in the August issue of Health Affairs, describes our experience with helping support both consumers and care providers with patient engagement. The report details UnitedHealthcare’s programs for analyzing information to identify gaps in care, using information to enable better treatment decisions, comparing care provider quality and cost to help inform care choices, and promoting better health and disease prevention using financial incentives and rewards.

And, as an employer, we practice what we preach. UnitedHealthcare uses these very same strategies, along with an “earn-back” program that provides financial incentives through reduced premiums to employees who adopt healthy habits. UnitedHealthcare employees enrolled in “Rewards for Health” are eligible to earn points to qualify for insurance premium reductions of up to $1,200 per family per year for having health screenings to detect conditions like cancer or diabetes, or meeting certain targets such as body mass index (BMI) reductions.

Since the Rewards for Health program launch, UnitedHealthcare has seen significant improvements in both quality and cost for its employee population. In the program’s first 24 months, 82 percent of employees earned points, and improvements were made in all quality measures over three years, with particularly large increases identified in wellness visits and office-based screenings, colorectal cancer screenings, and retinal eye exams for people with diabetes.

Most importantly, 7,200 employees at high risk for diabetes — including undiagnosed diabetes — were given the opportunity to better manage or prevent onset of the disease. In addition, 44 percent of overweight employees who engaged in health coaching improved the following year, with an average 4.5 percent weight loss. Savings of $107 million in health care costs were realized in the first 36 months of the Rewards for Health program.

Our own experience at UnitedHealthcare shows that rewarding healthy behavior works. We believe this report offers practical lessons for policymakers and suggests how Medicare, Medicaid, and other health plans could benefit from improved patient engagement. Were likeminded strategies to be used more broadly, they could be an effective tool in helping to improve consumer health, achieve wide-scale cost reductions, and advance a higher-performing health system in America.

It’s time for broad-based national action to focus on health, including designing effective incentives to activate consumers and stimulate healthy behavior. If a better, more efficient health system is the door we hope to open, payer-supported consumer engagement just might hold the key.