January 16, 2020
A Workplace Wellness Skeptic Lets Loose
by Al Lewis
Even if you were to reduce 100% of [wellness-sensitive medical events] you could not pay for most wellness programs.
This an excerpt from an interview that HIStalk conducted with Al Lewis, JD, the author of several books on healthcare outcomes, the operator of the website, They Said What? Because the Wellness Industry’s Pants Are On Fire, and the founder and CEO of Quizzify. The full interview can be found here.
Tell me about yourself and what you do.
I am CEO and quizmeister-in-chief of Quizzify, which is a an employee health literacy company. As we say, wiser employees make healthier decisions. However, I believe we are having this conversation because of my personal blog, which is called, “They Said What?” in which wellness vendors, diabetes vendors and related vendors are critically analyzed to in fact show that they usually don’t achieve what they claim to achieve.
You’re offering $3 million to any company that can convince an impartial panel that its program can save employers money. Do you have concerns about having to pay up?
None whatsoever. The entry fee is $300,000, and, believe me, it’s worth [the risk] with this impartial panel of five judges, of which I only get to appoint one and the burden of proof is on me. They don’t have a chance, which explains why nobody has tried to take me up on it.
Is it lack of knowledge or intentional deception that motivates wellness companies to sell services to employers without having sound science behind them?
Confucius put it very well. He said, and in those days it was all gender-specific, that, “When a man makes a mistake and it’s pointed out to him and he doesn’t correct it, he is telling a lie.” So at this point, these folks know they are lying. They have made the gamble, and it’s a good gamble, that vastly more people are going to read their ads than are going to read my website. So what they do, and they’ve gotten very good at this in the last couple of years, is simply ignore my postings instead of responding to them so as not to create a news cycle and a whole discussion.
Is the available science good enough that they could do it right if they really wanted to?
I would say that, for wellness generally, it is mathematically impossible to save money. There are not enough wellness-sensitive medical events. Even if you were to reduce 100% of them, you could not pay for most wellness programs. I’m not going to say it’s impossible, but it has clinically never even gotten close to that 100%. The typical reduction in risk is 0%, somewhere between minus 2% and plus 2%, while you would need a mathematically impossible 100% to 150% reduction to break even.
Most vendors are counting on the fact that most employers have absolutely no idea how many of their employees go to the hospital every year for diabetes. I could tell you if you like, unless you want to take a guess. Out of 1,000 people under the age of 65, how many go to the hospital with a primary diagnosis of diabetes in the insured population?
I’ll say two.
Actually, that’s very close. It’s more like one. Occasionally, I run health and wellness trivia contests at conferences. How does the radiation in the CT scan compare with the radiation in an X-ray? But I also throw in that specific question. If you added all the diabetes events and all heart attacks together in a typical employer population, what would the rate be per thousand? In fact, it would be two, if you put both of those together. The guesses that I get are usually somewhere between 20 per thousand and 200 per thousand.
What about the perception of the incidence of chronic disease in general?
It’s not my take, it’s the world’s take. Because I do this show of hands thing, I do these trivia contests all the time. The employer benefits community thinks it is between about 20 and 200 of these events per 1,000 employees. Which of course makes no sense whatsoever. This is just what they say because they get bombarded with information talking about all the people who have diabetes and all the expensive chronic disease. Let’s take those two things one at a time.
A lot of people do have diabetes. They may not even know it. It’s not going to become an issue for them for many years after they find out. If in fact an employer intervenes, they may possibly be able to control it. But what the [employer is] doing is saving Medicare money down the road because virtually nobody goes to the hospital with diabetes before the age of 65. Yet employers want to start paying for medication for these folks, so it’s a net increase in cost.
And then your other point of chronic disease. I’ve written extensively on this fallacy that 86% of cost is chronic disease. If you read… carefully, you’ll find that they are saying that 50% of adults have chronic disease. Now if you’re defining chronic disease that broadly, you’re including a whole lot more things besides the things that a wellness vendor can get to. You’re including arthritis. You’re including hypertension. Who doesn’t have hypertension?
If you put all that together and say, “Let’s count every dollar that someone with hypertension spends on healthcare….” So. someone with hypertension breaks [a] leg, you count that. You probably don’t even get to 86%, but most of that is also going to be in the over-65 population. In the under-65 population, the major drivers of costs are birth events and musculoskeletal.
The wellness vendors have done a great job of moving the goalposts. It used to be they would say, “You’re going to get a three-to-one financial return.” Then they started saying, “You’ll get a one-to-one return.” Now they’re saying, “There is really no financial return, but the employees will be healthier.”
If you actually look at the health of the employees … I’m not going to name names, except to say that there are a handful of vendors, generally the ones validated by the Validation Institute, that get more than a trivial improvement in health. There are other vendors — and I don’t mind naming names; Interactive Health and Wellsteps come to mind — where employees actually get worse as a result of these programs.
If that’s the case, won’t those companies eventually get fired for failing to deliver?
Some number of them are getting shown the door, but new employers are coming in. The problem is that the vendors have figured out how to measure outcomes fallaciously in such a way that most employers and most consultants aren’t going to catch them. They compare participants [with] non-participants, for example. It’s been proven up, down, sideways, backwards, forwards and eight ways to Sunday that every iota, every dollar of savings in a participant versus a non-participant comparison is due to the mindset of the participants versus the non-participants and not to the program.
How do I know that? There are several data points. Studies have benchmarked those things and found exactly that. But the most dramatic one is a company called HealthFitness Corporation that did a wellness program for a company called Eastman Chemical. They separated the groups into participants and non-participants in Year Zero. But due to a whole bunch of incompetence and delays, they didn’t get the program started until Year Two. By the time they started the programs, the participants had already dramatically outperformed non-participants.
The funny part about that is that my nemesis, the Snidely Whiplash to my Dudley Do-Right or the Lex Luthor to my Superman, was stuck with this, so he moved the goalposts. He said, “Oh, we overlooked that. That was our bad. We weren’t competent enough to realize that the program had actually started in Year Zero, not in Year Two. Therefore, you don’t know whether it’s due to the participants or non-participants.”
That turned out to be a big enough lie. And I don’t mind saying, oh, I’ll say on the record, Ron Goetzel is a liar. He can go ahead and sue me. The difference between him and me is that, if he calls me a liar, I’ll have him in court the next day. [Editor’s Note: We have emailed Goetzel to see if he wants to respond or offer a general defense of the economics of wellness, as he once did via an article we published. If he does so, we will update this article. To our knowledge, he has not yet responded to the original HIStalk article, published last week.]
They put out a graph that shows suddenly that the program started in Year Zero, not Year Two. The people who actually did the program got upset enough with that. If you go back and look at the website now, they have in fact replaced the lie with the truth, which is that the program started in Year Two after dramatic savings had already been found.
You’ve made the case that the simplest way to measure a workplace wellness program’s success is to ask the people who signed up if they participate regularly and see benefit from it. Do most programs fail even that basic test?
There is a tool put out by the Validation Institute that is the most elegant tool for measuring the cost-effectiveness of programs that I’ve ever seen. We are big supporters of it. You ask employees two questions. How much did you use something? You may not even have to ask them that because you already know. Then, did you find it useful? Then you multiply the number of times somebody used something times the usefulness they found. That gives you an engagement score as your Y axis. On the X axis is the cost of the program. You plot the engagement score against the cost of the program and you can tell in a single graph how cost-effective your programs are as viewed by employee use, employee engagement.
For the rest of the interview, click here to go to histalk2.com.