Pharmacogenomics in HR: A new era of mental wellbeing

Each week, 500,000 Canadians miss one day of work due to mental health issues

Pharmacogenomics in HR: A new era of mental wellbeing

Each week, 500,000 Canadians miss one day of work due to mental health issues. Of working people in the country, 60% have experienced a mental health condition at some point in their life. That translates into mental health issues making up the majority of disability leave claims an employer might face.

These are the data points that motivated Sun Life to make it easier for employees who are off work due to mental health issues to get the help they need - and move back into the workforce faster.

“It is something we need to be thinking of critically,” says Marie-Chantel Cote, vice-president of  market development, Group Benefits, at Sun Life.

“What were focused on is helping clients recover faster, get back to work and make the experience as transformative as possible for plan members and plan sponsors,” she says. “We want to be a thought leader in transforming the disability recovery experience for employees and employers - that’s the North Star.”

During mental health week, Sun Life announced an expanded suite of digital tools and healthcare innovations for employees on disability leave for mental health reasons. Cote says Sun Life updated its purpose a year or so ago and is now focused on helping Canadians live healthier lives. Through some strategic partnerships, the Sun Life Group Disability Team is hopeful employees who take disability leave for mental health reasons can more easily access effective assistance to get back to their best self - and back to work - sooner.

In 2017, the organization piloted pharmacogenomics - the study of how genes affect somebody’s response to drugs. It uses a person’s saliva to determine how a person may respond to mental health and chronic pain medications, and provide the ability to personalize drugs that don’t work the same for everyone. After completing a pilot study with The Centre for Mental Health and Addiction, Sun Life has now introduced a new national partnership with LifeLabs Genetics and Biogeni. People on mental health leave can use this personalized test and quickly be told which medications would be most effective for them, streamlining the process by removing the trial and error component, which data shows can take up to three or four attempts, Cote says.

“It’s a kit you receive and it’s a tiny saliva swab and the person sends it directly to the lab - Sun Life is not involved in that and does not see the data. The report shows green, yellow or red for which drugs are best based on genetic composition. This report is sent to the person’s physician and they are the one who takes that and adjusts medication as one data point among other data points,” she explains.

The company also introduced two other cutting-edge treatment options - Virtual Independent Medical Examination and Online Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

The medical examination - called vIME - is a unique approach offered in partnership with EQ Care. This pilot is one-of-a-kind, and allows someone on disability to complete an independent examination without having to leave their home. It works for someone who has a diagnosis of a mental health condition from their general practitioner, but require further information from a specialist to confirm their treatment plan. Through more traditional means, that process can take up to 40 days, Cote says. But with vIME, the time from diagnosis to treatment is significantly reduced.

“In our preliminary data, we have seen that time reduced to 20 days. So people are getting a  treatment plan faster and confirmation on their diagnosis so they can start on that road to recovery faster.”

Cote says the virtual exam is a good tool for people who face barriers to care - whether that be because of their geographic location, availability in terms of cost, worry about stigma, or not feeling good enough to leave home.

The online therapy tool also offers the convenience of allowing the participant to benefit without having to venture out of their comfort zone. Suggested for those with mild to moderate anxiety and depression, the cognitive behavioural therapy offers online modules that focus on improving mental well-being and weekly virtual sessions with a mental health professional. Cote says looking at tools, like online therapy, that can be used preventatively through extended benefit options is the next step, and something Sun Life is innovating on.

Cote says her team has demonstrated these innovative tools have positive outcomes, and if she were an HR professional, her first priority would be ensuring her workforce was feeling good.

“Organizations are very supportive of this because all these capabilities or solutions we are proposing are win win win - win for the employee who feels better through the support of these tools, win for the employer where the workforce is more healthy, there’s less absenteeism and less diminishment in productivity, and our side, the insurer of course, have a win in that too.”

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