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Aetna Forms Research Partnership with School of Public Health

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
The School of Public Health.
The School of Public Health and insurance company Aetna announced a research partnership last week intended to examine data on employee well-being.

Tyler J. VanderWeele, an Epidemiology professor at the School of Public Health, is co-directing the project with Eileen McNeely, an instructor at the school.

Aetna executives interested in improving employee well-being contacted the researchers in 2016, VanderWeele said, and they first met to discuss the project that spring.

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“It was clear almost from the beginning that this was going to be a good match with regard to interest and the potential for research,” VanderWeele said. “We’ll have quite an extraordinary and rich well-being data research resource.”

Aetna employees will voluntarily take longitudinal well-being surveys for five years, the results of which will be sent to researchers at the School of Public Health.

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Harvard well-being researchers have worked with employee data from companies in the past, but not on the scale or duration of the Aetna project, according to VanderWeele.

Aetna and Harvard officials both declined to state exactly how much funding Aetna will provide to the school, but said that it was a substantial amount.

“It’s in the millions of dollars,” VanderWeele said.

Aetna spokesperson Ethan Slavin said “this is a pretty sizable funding arrangement for this type of research.”

Kay Mooney, vice president of employee benefits and well-being at Aetna, said the partnership is part of Aetna’s efforts to improve employee well-being.

“We ended up interviewing a lot of different companies and institutions, and felt like when we met with Eileen that we had a similar vision for what we were trying to accomplish,” Mooney said.

In order to allay data privacy concerns, the data transmitted between Aetna and the School of Public Health will not be attached to employee names, Mooney said.

The new partnership seeks to expand the traditional four-factor understanding of well-being, physical, emotional, social, and financial, to include purpose and character strengths.

After a pilot program testing a subgroup of the company in 2018, the well-being surveys will be expanded to all of Aetna’s employees next year.

Mooney said the company also hopes to make its well-being model available to Aetna customers in the future.

Stanford Law School professor Michelle M. Mello, who previously worked at the School of Public Health, characterized the arrangement between Aetna and Harvard as standard for similar research.

“Most research that is done in medical schools and schools of public health is funded by grants or contracts from people outside the school,” Mello said. “It’s quite common for research projects to be attached a grant, and it’s also common for those grants to come from industry.”

This partnership is not the first time Aetna has worked with Longwood researchers. In 2011, Aetna partnered with Harvard Medical School’s Center for Biomedical Informatics to analyze healthcare claims data.

—Staff writer Luke W. Vrotsos can be reached at luke.vrotsos@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter at luke_vrotsos.

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