Shape up the Nation the way AA treats alcoholism

To those who say social pressures can't work against intractable health problems, Zani has one word for you. Smoking.

The key to Alcoholics Anonymous is its social network.

You have people around you who have been there. You have regular meetings. When you succeed you get a token, which has no economic value but may be the most precious item an alcoholic possesses.

What if we could build that same kind of social network around wellness, and against obesity? What if we combined it with basic Web 2.0 technology, and mass marketed it through companies which want to save on their health insurance costs?

That, in a nutshell, is the concept behind Shape Up the Nation.

CEO Mike Zani says his Providence, Rhode Island company began life as a statewide non-profit called Shape Up Rhode Island. CVS Caremark, which is based in nearby Woonsocket, saw its success, he said, and encouraged him, becoming an anchor tenant.

"We intermingle light competition and good old fashioned communication and recruiting into Web 2.0 technology," he explained.

"We get early adopters, make them team captains, and have them recruit their social networks to join these competitions. We pull them into the platform, form social connections on the platform, and once you engage people on the platform you've excited the base.

"We're seeing 38% engagement across our book of business." That's important, because once about a third of the people around you are doing something, pressure quickly builds for you to join them, he said.

The "prizes" companies can offer to participants may be modest. People who get the flu shot might be given the Wednesday before Thanksgiving off. (People aren't in then, anyway.)

Any small award will work -- remember those AA tokens. Just set them to achievable goals, and try to get everyone in an employee's social network on board.

Pricing is flexible. Most clients, mainly self-insuring companies and health plans for now, start off paying a yearly fee per participant. "As we get more integrated and they see our engagement is high they move to per employee pricing. The health plans often want per member pricing. It turns out to be a mix."

To those who say social pressures can't work against intractable health problems, Zani has one word for you.

Smoking.

"Back in the 1960s you could chain smoke in offices and your secretary came in with an ashtray. Today people eat super-sized burgers at their desk. It's really no different." Its impact is, in fact, quite similar. Our kids may well find our current office habits as weird as I find the cast of Mad Men.

If this sounds a bit like Virgin Healthmiles, which I profiled at ZDNet Healthcare early this month, it is. The key difference may be where Zani thinks change will come from. Virgin is offering prizes, Zani is trying to create peer pressure.

Which do you think will work best?

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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