At first, Sarah Okroi ignored the e-mails that came from her employer's wellness plan. But on a whim one day, she clicked on a link to a survey. Something about the timing of the survey in her life, and the low-pressure nature of the website, grabbed hold.
Soon, the 31-year old mother of three had signed up for a 30-day weight-loss challenge, and was logging on every day to talk online with fellow challengers. She began walking the 2 miles to her job at IWCO Direct in Little Falls, Minn., and started to cut back on her smoking habit.
"I was definitely a skeptic," Okroi said. "But there were fun challenges — pick up trash as you walk or a make-up-your-bed challenge. I got the kids involved. Now my refrigerator has changed from a whole lot of bad stuff to about 80 percent fresh food and veggies."
Okroi credits this lifestyle turnaround to Novu, a health-focused website developed by a St. Louis Park-based company of the same name.
Novu is part of a growing trend in health care as doctors, insurers and businesses look for tools to help people manage their health and, ultimately, hold down medical costs.
The platform captures the popularity of online games and social media and blends it with wellness programs and behavioral science, creating modern-day carrots to help people to make healthier choices.
"All of us in health care are frustrated over our lack of success in getting enough people, enough of the time, to do what they need to do to promote their own health and prevent disease," said Dr. Reed Tuckson, a former medical director of UnitedHealth Group and a consultant for Novu.
"Novu creates a reward mechanism that encourages people to engage. It pushes people together and lets the dynamic of the group take over and propel them forward," Tuckson said. "A physician can't do that for a patient, but another person can."
Novu was formed in 2011 by three brothers with a background in building customer-loyalty programs for the travel, hospitality, financial services and retail industries. Though Novu focuses on nutrition, fitness, stress programs and smoking cessation, the site is built on those same techniques of customer loyalty.
Novu's interactive website hooks users with rewards points, games and a supportive online network. Meanwhile the underlying technology collects data on each person's interests and behaviors, helping Novu send out the right enticement to the right person at just the right time.
"The goal is to get consumers engaged and activated in their own health," said Novu CEO Tom Wicka. "Once you're engaged, there's a lot we can do."
Wicka founded and funded the business with brothers Jim, who is a lawyer and executive vice president of corporate development, and John, who is executive vice president in charge of products. The brothers have spent the last few years building the propriety software and website and testing the program on thousands of users.
About 25 businesses, insurance companies and health systems now use the online platform, including insurers Medica and UnitedHealthcare and Fairview Health Services in Minnesota. Novu is planning a nationwide push in the year ahead.
The timing couldn't be better
While the field is competitive, the timing is right. Under reform efforts, doctors and other health care providers no longer will be paid based on every treatment they give to patients who come into their offices. Instead, their bottom lines will depend on keeping patients healthy, and doing fewer tests and procedures. Given those incentives, providers are hungry for tools to get patients involved in their own health.
"Most of our clinical work is patient to patient, but there are time constraints that limit our effectiveness," said Dr. Dang Tran, a regional medical director at Fairview Health Services, which is testing Novu for a year.
"In helping patients with chronic illness and chronic disease, much of it has root causes in behaviors that patients have to change to manage their conditions better," he said. "We're always looking for opportunities and more-effective ways to get them activated."
Novu's website is marketed as a business-to-business platform and is not open to the public.
Businesses incorporate Novu into wellness programs, and insurance companies use it to help enrollees manage their care. More recently, Novu has signed up health systems, giving providers a tool to help patients once they leave the clinic.
Executives declined to say how many people are using the site, but 2.4 million users have access to it at the workplace or through their insurers or medical clinics, Tom Wicka said, and the goal is to double that this year. The company, which is profitable, has a 2014 goal of $10 million in revenue.
The name is a riff on the Latin "novus" or "new beginning," and the Novu website tries to encourage people to jump in and get started.
Daily, weekly and monthly challenges might include pounds lost or miles walked. Users are enticed to stay engaged with educational trivia games, tips and weekly prize raffles. All the while, they're racking up points that can be redeemed for discounts or charitable donations.
They honor the code at the St. Louis Park headquarters, where about 50 workers occupy a sprawling space with neon-colored walls and plenty of natural light. A digital screen in a conference room displays rotating tips from employees on better living. And once, when a new vendor sent over a box of doughnuts, they ended up stale and untouched in the company's break room.
Tom Wicka argues that Novu is different from other wellness programs or "health engagement" tools because it figures out what consumers want to do — and doesn't tell them what they should do.
So instead of harping on someone to stop smoking or hammering at a diabetic to lose weight, Novu might start off with tips to help a busy parent manage stress or offer a program on how to get more sleep.
Okroi, the once-reluctant participant, has lost 36 pounds since signing up last July and has cut back on smoking so much that quitting seems to be in reach. The support and trust of her network of peers, including Novu users in California and Washington, have given her confidence to reveal a more-private battle with food, she said. As a teenager, she ballooned to 200 pounds and then dropped to a dangerous 120 pounds, gripped by an eating disorder that left her near death and possibly unable to have children.
Okroi said she has gained the courage to talk about her struggles.
"I've never opened up in public. That was my dirty secret," she said. "I never thought I could love food and love who I am. I can eat and be healthy and take care of myself and my children. It has seriously changed my life."