December 23, 2015
Genetic Testing: The New Wellness Frontier
by Al Lewis
An Aetna study on the benefits of genetic testing accidentally eviscerates the fiction that wellness programs save money.
The Wall Street Journal just reported that Genetic Testing May Be Coming to Your Office Soon. This is all well and good, assuming employees want their health insurer’s buddies collecting their DNA for no good reason, handling it, selling it and possibly losing it.
This is not us talking. This is what the genetic testing company itself says on its website. You can read all about it here.
We will focus on the fact that this genetic testing simply doesn’t save money – even according to a study by the main proponents of this dystopian scheme, Aetna and its buddies at the ironically named Newtopia.
If engineers learn more from one bridge that falls down than from 100 that stay up, this new Aetna-Newtopia study is the Tacoma Narrows of wellness industry study design. No article anywhere – including our most recent in Harvard Business Review – has more effectively eviscerated the fiction that wellness saves money than Aetna just did in a self-financed self-immolation published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. We hope the people who give out Koop Awards to their customers and clients will read this article and finally learn that massive reductions in cost associated with trivial improvements in risk are because of self-selection by participants, not because of wellness programs. And certainly not because of wellness programs centered on DNA collection.
Aetna studied Aetna employees who, by Aetna’s own admission, didn’t have anything wrong with them, other than being at risk for developing metabolic syndrome, defined as “a cluster of conditions that increase your risk for heart attack, stroke and diabetes.”
In other words, Aetna took the wellness industry’s obsession with hyperdiagnosis to its extreme: The “diagnosis” of those Aetna studied was that they were at risk for being at risk. Not only did they not have diabetes or heart disease, they didn’t even have a syndrome that put them at risk for developing diabetes or heart disease. You and I should be so healthy.
As this table shows, after one year, the changes in health indicators between the control and study groups were trivial (e.g., a difference in waist measurement of less than 3/10 of an inch), only the change in triglycerides was statistically significant, and just barely (p=0.05). The control group actually outperformed the study group in three of the six measured variables, as would be predicted by chance. Bottom line: Nothing happened.
Yet Aetna reported savings of $1,464 per participant in the first year. This figure is more than 20 times higher than what Aetna’s own HERO Report says gets spent in total on medical events that could be affected by wellness programs. The figure is also far higher than Katherine Baicker’s claim of a 3.27-to-1 return on wellness spending. (Yes, in keeping with wellness industry tradition, Aetna cited the claim even though it has been thoroughly discredited and basically retracted; only now, because the Baicker study is six years old, Aetna feels compelled to insist that it is “recent.”)
How did Aetna achieve such a high savings figure in a legitimate, randomized controlled trial (RCT)? Simple. That savings was not the result of the legitimate RCT. Having gone through the trouble of setting up an RCT, Aetna largely ignored that study design.
As Aetna’s own table above shows, nothing happened. Spending was a bit lower for the invited group, but obviously there couldn’t have been attribution to the program. A responsible and unbiased researcher might have said: “While there is a slight positive variance between the spending on the control group and the spending on the invitee group that wouldn’t begin to cover the cost of our DNA testing, we can’t attribute that variance to this program anyway. The subjects were healthy to begin with, there was no change in clinical indicators and we didn’t measure wellness-sensitive medical events even though we know from our own HERO report both that those represent only a tiny fraction of total spending, and that those are the only thing that a wellness program can influence.”
Instead, Aetna coaxed about 14% of the invitees to give up their DNA and measured savings on that small sample. (More than coincidentally, that decidedly uninspiring 14% participation rate was about the same as the Aetna-Newtopia debacle at the Jackson Labs reference site-from-hell. Basically, employees don’t want their DNA collected, and DNA turns out to be quite controversial as a tool to predict heart disease down the road, let alone during the next 12 months. Further, Newtopia admits that it stores employee DNA, that lots of people have access to it and that Newtopia could lose it.)
The DNA seems to have had precious little to do with the actual wellness program. This Aetna program seems like a classic wellness intervention of exactly the type that has never been shown to work, with the DNA being only an entertaining sidebar. The subjects themselves exhibited no interest in hearing about their DNA-based predictions.
This is the first time a study has compared the result of an RCT to the result of a participants-only subset of the same population. The result: a mathematically and clinically impossible savings figure on the subset of active participants, and an admission of no separation in actual health status between the control and invitee groups by the end of the program period.
So Aetna accidentally proved what we’ve been saying for years about the fundamental bias in wellness study design that creates the illusion of savings:
Participants in wellness studies will always massively outperform non-participants – even when the program doesn’t change health status and even when there was no program for the “participants” to participate in.