Tag Archives: c. everett koop award

A Proposed Code of Conduct on Wellness

So many wellness industry misdeeds to expose, so little room on the internet.

This posting will start out as one of my typical shock-and-awe postings featuring a wellness vendor raising the bar for dishonesty and employee harms. Uniquely, though, we will close with a surprisingly uplifting slam-bang conclusion that could change the wellness industry forever…but only with your help.

The Bad News

It’s that time of year again, when traditionally the C. Everett Koop Award Committee bestows an award upon a fellow committee member or award sponsor, in recognition of doing the best job of fabricating dramatic savings while making only trivial improvements in employee health. That’s par for the course, and isn’t even news any more.

See also: The Yuuuuge Hidden Costs of Wellness

However, this year, the Koop Award Committee apparently decided that actually improving employee health was too high a bar for a wellness program to clear, so the committee gave the award to a committee colleague, Wellsteps, for a program in which the health status of Boise School District employees deteriorated. We’ve done the arithmetic so you don’t have to. The award application below shows that 5,293 employee biomarkers improved, while 6,397 got worse.

Screen Shot 2016-08-14 at 7.46.59 PM

In addition to the objective failure of the program, consider employee self-reported health. The single most important question to ask to gauge the state of someone’s health is: “How is your health?” Wellsteps buried the answer to that question at the end of a long list, but squint hard enough and you can see that Boise employee self-reported health status declined, by a small but statistically significant (p=0.0007) amount:

Screen Shot 2016-08-14 at 7.48.39 PM

There are many other problems with this program, too. Wellsteps is shaming even the lightest drinkers, attributing massive savings to improved health despite the deterioration in health, suppressing data showing increased health spending and flouting clinical guidelines. All that is covered in this Linkedin Pulse.

In all fairness, here is the response from Wellsteps’ Troy Adams (best known in the wellness industry for posting that ”It’s fun to get fat, and it’s fun to be lazy”) to my initial observations that Wellsteps is harming employees and fabricating savings. Surprisingly, I agree with both points:

  1. Yes, the Wellsteps data is “rock solid;” and,
  2. Yes, having just walked into from 92-degree heat, I am at least temporarily full of “hot air.”

The Good News

Fabricating savings is part of the Koop Award DNA, but bestowing an award on a vendor that actually harmed employees crosses a bright red line. Rather than complaining about it (or more accurately, in addition to complaining about it), I thought it might be time to take steps to prevent this type of performance from being considered acceptable, let alone prizeworthy.

So I convened a group, including WELCOA‘s respected and forward-thinking new CEO, Ryan Piccarella, and leading wellness gurus Jon Robison and Rosie Ward of Salveo Partners. Together, we crafted a very simple and minimalist Code of Conduct. (I don’t want to take more than my share of the credit. This was a joint effort. I just happened to be the one who initiated the email chain.) In full, it appears below. It is definitely “minimalist,” a Code of the first-do-no-harm variety. And yet, as low a threshold as it is, many vendors – including Wellsteps and many previous Koop Award winners – would not be able to meet it.

What we would ask of ITL’s readership is:

  1. Circulate this posting/the Code widely;
  2. As brokers or customers, insist that your vendor(s) follow the Code of Conduct…and add it as an actual contractual term;
  3. As brokers or vendors, announce that you will be following the Code. (While this blog is my own effort, I am also affiliated with Quizzify. Quizzify will be announcing this week that it intends to make this Code of Conduct a contractual term, meaning that failing to adhere to it would constitute a breach of our obligations under the contract.)

The Employee Health Program Code of Conduct

Our organization resolves that its program should do no harm to employee health, corporate integrity or employee/employer finances. Instead, we will endeavor to support employee well-being for our customers, their employees and all program constituents.

Employee Benefits and Harm Avoidance

Our organization will recommend doing programs with/for employees rather than to them, and will focus on promoting well-being and avoiding bad health outcomes. Our choices and frequencies of screenings are consistent with U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) and CDC guidelines and Choosing Wisely.

See also: Wellness Promoters Agree: It Doesn’t Work  

Our relevant staff will understand USPSTF guidelines, employee harm avoidance, wellness-sensitive medical event measurement and outcomes analysis.

Employees will not be singled out, fined or embarrassed for their health status.

Respect for Corporate Integrity and Employee Privacy

We will not share employee-identifiable data with employers and will ensure that all protected health information (PHI) adheres to HIPAA regulations and any other applicable laws.

Commitment to Valid Outcomes Measurement

Our contractual language and outcomes reporting will be transparent and plausible. All research limitations (e.g., “participants vs. non-participants” or the “natural flow of risk” or ignoring dropouts) and methodology will be fully disclosed, sourced and readily available.

Wellness Promoters Agree: It Doesn’t Work

How many times do wellness promoters have to admit or prove that wellness doesn’t work before everyone finally believes them?

Whether one measures clinical outcomes/effectiveness, savings or productivity, the figures provided by the most vocal wellness promoters and the most “successful” wellness programs yield the same answer: Wellness doesn’t work.

  • Outcomes/Effectiveness

Let’s start with actual program effectiveness. Most recently, Ron Goetzel, head of the committee that bestows the C. Everett Koop Award, told the new healthcare daily STAT News that only about 100 programs work, while “thousands” fail.

In that estimate, which works out to a failure rate well north of 90%, he is joined by Michael O’Donnell, editor of the industry trade journal, the American Journal of Health Promotion (AJHP). O’Donnell says that as many as 95% of programs fail. (For the record, I have no beef with him, because he once willingly admitted that I am “not an idiot.”)

The best example of this Goetzel-O’Donnell consensus? McKesson, the 2015 Koop Award winner. McKesson’s own data –even when scrubbed of those pesky non-participants and dropouts who are too embarrassed to allow themselves to be weighed in – shows an increase in body mass and cholesterol:

graph1

Vitality Group, which contributed to this McKesson award-winning result as a vendor, wants your company to publicly disclose how many fat employees you have. Why? So that you are “pressured” (their word) into hiring a wellness vendor like Vitality. Yet Vitality admits it can’t get its own employees to lose weight.

McKesson and Vitality continue a hallowed tradition among Koop Award-winning programs of employees not losing noticeable weight. For instance, at Pfizer, the 2010 award-winner, employees who opened their weight-loss email lost all of three ounces:

graph2

Maybe it’s unfair to pick programs based on winning awards. Awards or not, those programs could have cut corners. Perhaps to find an exception to the rule that wellness can’t improve outcomes, we should look to the most expensive program, Aetna’s. Unfortunately, even Aetna registered only the slightest improvement in health indicators, throwing away $500/employee in the process. Why that much? Aetna decided to collect employee DNA to predict diabetes, even though reputable scientists have never posited that DNA can predict diabetes.

So even award winners, wellness vendors themselves and gold-plated programs can’t move the outcomes needle in a meaningful way, if at all. Bottom line: It looks like we finally have both consensus on the futility of wellness, and data to support the wellness industry admission that way north of 90% of programs do indeed fail to generate outcomes.

Savings

Because wellness promoters now say most programs fail, it is no surprise they also say most programs lose money. Once again, this isn’t us talking. The industry’s own guidebook – written by Goetzel and O’Donnell and dozens of other industry leaders — shows wellness loses money. We have posted that observation on ITL before, and no one objected.

However, very recently, the sponsors of this guidebook (the Health Enhancement Research Organization, or HERO) did finally take issue with our quoting statistics from their own guidebook. They pointed out — quite accurately — that their money-losing example was hypothetical. It did not involve numbers they would approve of, despite having published them. (At least, we think this is what HERO said. One of their board members has learned that they have sent a letter to members of the lay media, telling them not to publish our postings. We are told HERO’s objection centers on our quoting their report.)

To avoid a lawsuit for quoting figures they prefer us not to quote, we substituted their own real figures for their own hypothetical figures — and using real figures from Goetzel’s company, Truven Health Analytics, multiplied the losses.

This very same downloadable guidebook notes that these losses, as great as they are, actually exclude at least nine other sources of administrative costs–like internal costs, impact on morale, lost work time for screenings, etc. (Page 10). Truven also excludes a large number of medical costs (Page. 22):

graph3

One could only assume that including all these administrative and medical losses in the calculation would increase the total loss.

Lest readers think that this consensus guidebook is an anomaly, HERO is joined in its conclusion that wellness loses money by AJHP. AJHP published a meta-analysis showing a negative ROI from high-quality studies.

Productivity

RAND’s Soeren Mattke said it best:

“The industry went in with promises of 3-to-1 and 6-to-1 ROIs based on healthcare savings alone. Then research came out that said that’s not true. They said, ‘Fine, we are cost-neutral.’ Now research says: ‘Maybe not even cost-neutral.’ So they say: ‘It’s really about productivity, which we can’t really measure, but it’s an enormous return.'”

The AJHP stepped up to make Dr. Mattke appear prescient. After finding no ROI in high-quality studies, proponents decided to dispense with ROI altogether. “Who cares about ROI anyway?” were O’Donnell’s exact words.

Because health dollars couldn’t be saved, O’Donnell tried to estimate productivity impact. But honesty compelled him to admit that workers would need to devote about 4% of their time to working out to be 1% more productive on the job. Using his own time-and-motion figures, and adding in program costs, his math creates a loss exceeding $5,200/employee/year.

I would have to agree with O’Donnell, based on my experience in the 1990s as the CEO of a NASDAQ company. Ours was a call center company, which meant someone had to answer the phones. If I had let employees go to the gym instead of working, I would have had to pay other employees to cover for them. Our productivity would have taken a huge hit, even if the workouts bulked up employees’ biceps to the point where they could pick up the phone 1% faster.

Where Does This Leave Us?

Despite our using their own figures, wellness promoters may object to this analysis, saying they didn’t really intend for these conclusions to be reached. Intended or not, these are the conclusions from their figures, and theirs largely agree with ours, expressed in many previous blog posts on ITL. And, of course, our website, www.theysaidwhat.net, is devoted to exposing vendor lies. The bottom line is, no matter whose “side” you are on, the answer is the same. Assuming you look at promoters’ actual data or statements instead of listening to the spin, the conclusion is the same: Conventional wellness doesn’t work.

It’s time to move on.

11 Questions for Ron Goetzel on Wellness

We thank Ron Goetzel, representing Truven Health and Johns Hopkins, for posting on Insurance Thought Leadership a rebuttal to our viral November posting, “Workplace Wellness Shows No Savings.” Paradoxically, while he conceived and produced the posting, we are happy to publicize it for him. If you’ve heard that song before, think Mike Dukakis’s tank ride during his disastrous 1988 presidential campaign.

Goetzel’s rebuttal, “The Value of Workplace Wellness Programs,” raises at least 11 questions that he has been declining to answer. We hope he will respond here on ITL. And, of course, we are happy to answer any specific questions he would ask us, as we think we are already doing in the case of the point he raises about wellness-sensitive medical events. (We offer, for the third time, to have a straight-up debate and hope that he reconsiders his previous refusals.)

Ron:

(1)    How can you say you are not familiar with measuring wellness-sensitive medical events (WSMEs), like heart attacks? Your exact words are: “What are these events? Where have they been published? Who has peer-reviewed them?” Didn’t you yourself just review an article on that very topic, a study that we ourselves had hyperlinked as an example of peer-reviewed WSMEs in the exact article of ours that you are rebutting now? WSMEs are the events that should decline because of a wellness program. Example: If you institute a wellness program aimed at avoiding heart attacks, you’d measure the change in the number of heart attacks across your population as a “plausibility test” to see if the program worked, just like you’d measure the impact of a campaign to avoid teenage pregnancies by observing the change in the rate of teenage pregnancies. We’re not sure why you think that simple concept of testing plausibility using WSMEs needs peer review. Indeed, we don’t know how else one would measure impact of either program, which is why the esteemed Validation Institute recognizes only that methodology. (In any event, you did already review WMSEs in your own article.) We certainly concur with your related view that randomized controlled trials are impractical in workplace settings (and can’t blame you for avoiding them, given that your colleague Michael O’Donnell’s journal published a meta-analysis showing RCTs have negative ROIs).

(2)    How do you reconcile your role as Highmark’s consultant for the notoriously humiliating, unpopular and counterproductive Penn State wellness program with your current position that employees need to be treated with “respect and dignity”? Exactly what about Penn State’s required monthly testicle check and $1,200 fine on female employees for not disclosing their pregnancy plans respected the dignity of employees?

(3)    Which of your programs adhere to U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) screening guidelines and intervals that you now claim to embrace? Once again, we cite the Penn State example, because it is in the public domain — almost nothing about that program was USPSTF-compliant, starting with the aforementioned testicle checks.

(4)    Your posting mentions “peer review” nine times. If peer review is so important to wellness true believers,  how come none of your colleagues editing the three wellness promotional journals (JOEM, AJPM and AJHP) has ever asked either of us to peer-review a single article, despite the fact that we’ve amply demonstrated our prowess at peer review by exposing two dozen fraudulent claims on They Said What?, including exposés of four companies represented on your Koop Award committee (Staywell, Mercer, Milliman and Wellsteps) along with three fraudulent claims in Koop Award-winning programs?

(5)    Perhaps the most popular slide used in support of wellness-industry ROI actually shows the reverse — that motivation, rather than the wellness programs themselves, drives the health spending differential between participants and non-participants. How do we know that? Because on that Eastman Chemical-Health Fitness Corp. slide (reproduced below), significant savings accrued and were counted for 2005 – the year before the wellness program was implemented. Now you say 2005 was “unfortunately mislabeled” on that slide. Unless this mislabeling was an act of God, please use the active voice: Who mislabeled this slide for five years; where is the person’s apology; and why didn’t any of the analytical luminaries on your committee disclose this mislabeling even after they knew it was mislabeled? The problem was noted in both Surviving Workplace Wellness and the trade-bestselling, award-winning Why Nobody Believes the Numbers, which we know you’ve read because you copied pages from it before Wiley & Sons demanded you stop? Was it because HFC sponsors your committee, or was it because Koop Committee members lack the basic error identification skills taught in courses on outcomes analysis that no committee member has ever passed?

wellness-article

(6)    Why doesn’t anyone on the Koop Committee notice any of these “unfortunate mislabelings” until several years after we point out that they are in plain view?

(7)    Why is it that every time HFC admits lying, the penalty that you assess — as president of the Koop Award Committee — is to anoint their programs as “best practices” in health promotion? (See Eastman Chemical and Nebraska in the list below.) Doesn’t that send a signal that Dr. Koop might have objected to?

(8)    Whenever HFC publishes lengthy press releases announcing that its customers received the “prestigious” Koop Award, it always forgets to mention that it sponsors the awards. With your post’s emphasis on “the spirit of full disclosure” and “transparency,” why haven’t you insisted HFC disclose that it finances the award (sort of like when Nero used to win the Olympics because he ran them)?

(9)    Speaking of “best practices” and Koop Award winners, HFC’s admitted lies about saving the lives of 514 cancer victims in its award-winning Nebraska program are technically a violation of the state’s anti-fraud statute, because HFC accepted state money and then misrepresented outcomes. Which is it: Is HFC a best practice, or should it be prosecuted for fraud?

(10)    RAND Corp.’s wellness guru Soeren Mattke, who also disputes wellness ROIs, has observed that every time one of the wellness industry’s unsupportable claims gets disproven, wellness defenders say they didn’t really mean it, and they really meant something else altogether. Isn’t this exactly what you are doing here, with the “mislabeled” slide, with your sudden epiphany about following USPSTF guidelines and respecting employee dignity and with your new position that ROI doesn’t matter any more, now that most ROI claims have been invalidated?

(11)    Why are you still quoting Katherine Baicker’s five-year-old meta-analysis claiming 3.27-to-1 savings from wellness in (roughly) 16-year-old studies, even though you must be fully aware that she herself has repeatedly disowned it and now says: “There are very few studies that have reliable data on the costs and benefits”? We have offered to compliment wellness defenders for telling the truth in every instance in which they acknowledge all her backpedaling whenever they cite her study. We look forward to being able to compliment you on truthfulness when you admit this. This offer, if you accept it, is an improvement over our current Groundhog Day-type cycle where you cite her study, we point out that she’s walked it back four times, and you somehow never notice her recantations and then continue to cite the meta-analysis as though it’s beyond reproach.

To end on a positive note, while we see many differences between your words and your deeds, let us give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you mean what you say and not what you do. In that case, we invite you to join us in writing an open letter to Penn State, the Business Roundtable, Honeywell, Highmark and every other organization (including Vik Khanna’s wife’s employer) that forces employees to choose between forfeiting large sums of money and maintaining their dignity and privacy. We could collectively advise them to do exactly what you now say: Instead of playing doctor with “pry, poke, prod and punish” programs, we would encourage employers to adhere to USPSTF screening guidelines and frequencies and otherwise stay out of employees’ personal medical affairs unless they ask for help, because overdoctoring produces neither positive ROIs nor even healthier employers. And we need to emphasize that it’s OK if there is no ROI because ROI doesn’t matter.

As a gesture to mend fences, we will offer a 50% discount to all Koop Committee members for the Critical Outcomes Report Analysis course and certification, which is also recognized by the Validation Institute. This course will help your committee members learn how to avoid the embarrassing mistakes they consistently otherwise make and (assuming you institute conflict-of-interest rules as well to require disclosure of sponsorships) ensure that worthy candidates win your awards.

The Value of Workplace Wellness

The recent blog post by Al Lewis, Vik Khanna and Shana Montrose titled, “Workplace Wellness Produces No Savings,” has triggered much interest and media attention. It highlights the controversy surrounding the value of workplace health promotion programs that 22 authors addressed in an article published in the September 2014 issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, titled, “Do Workplace Health Promotion (Wellness) Programs Work?” That article also inspired several follow-up discussions and media reports, including one published by New York Times columnists Frakt and Carroll, who answered the above question with: “usually not.”

There are certainly many points of contention and areas for continued discussion on this topic. It turns out that Lewis et al. and I agree on many things, and there are other areas where we see things differently.

Where we agree…

Biometric screenings. Biometric screenings are important for collection of baseline health risk data and are often viewed as an added value by employees participating in workplace health promotion programs. Lewis et al. and I agree that employers should screen their workers for health risks in accordance with guidelines recommended by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). These guidelines are clear about the necessity and periodicity of biometric screenings for high blood pressure, obesity, cholesterol, glucose, triglycerides, cervical cancer, colon cancer, breast cancer and other conditions.

We agree that over-testing people is not a good idea and may lead to false positives, as well as unnecessary medical interventions that are costly and add little value. For readers seeking guidance on biometric screenings in a workplace setting, I refer them to a peer-reviewed article published in the October 2013 issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Incentives. Workplace health promotion programs are not the same as incentive programs. “Smart” incentives are part of a well-designed program, but such programs need to be embedded in healthy company cultures where employers encourage and reward healthy behaviors. Comprehensive wellness programs often use financial incentives to attract participation and, in some instances, encourage behaviors that lead to risk reduction.

Most experts in workplace health promotion agree that creating intrinsic motivation for health improvement is an essential component of an effective program. As Daniel Pink points out in his book Drive, people are motivated to behave a certain way when they feel a sense of autonomy, when they are able to master certain skills needed to change a behavior and when they can connect changing that behavior to a larger purpose in life. This applies to individuals wishing to achieve certain health goals, such as quitting smoking, being more physically active and eating a healthier diet.

Paying people to improve their health in an unhealthy work environment is a futile strategy. Workers will expect higher payments each year, will view “non-compliance” as a penalty and will mistrust their employer for trying to do things to them instead of with them.

To summarize, incentives need to be practical, ethical and legal. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) legislation should not be used as a vehicle or excuse for “blaming” workers for poor health habits, or to penalize them financially for not achieving certain health outcomes. Employers share responsibility for the health and well-being of workers and can do much to create a healthy company culture.

For readers interested in a more in-depth discussion of health promotion incentive programs, I refer them to a series of Health Affairs blog posts and a guidance document prepared by the Health Enhancement Research Organization, American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, American Cancer Society and American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, American Diabetes Association and American Heart Association.

Culture of health. We also agree that effective workplace health promotion programs need to be embedded within a culture of health that respects workers’ rights to make informed choices about personal health matters. Without question, workplaces need to be safe, and employees need to be treated with respect and dignity. Workers also have a right to be in a healthy work environment where positive health behaviors are encouraged and supported. That means making healthy food available in vending machines and cafeterias, encouraging physical activity, prohibiting on-site smoking, offering vaccination programs and providing health insurance.

The list of programs, policies and environmental supports for a healthy workplace is long, and there are hundreds of environmental and policy interventions available to employers who wish to send a clear message that the company encourages and supports good health. For a more complete discussion of how companies can achieve a healthy culture, see the May 2013 issue of The Art of Health Promotion.

The importance of studying “wellness-sensitive” events…in addition to overall utilization and costs. Lewis et al. highlight the need to focus on “wellness-sensitive” medical events when conducting cost analyses. I agree but ask the authors: What are these events? Where have descriptions been published? Who has reviewed them? Why do they only apply to in-patient claims? Are there not any “wellness-sensitive” events that would appear in out-patient settings?

The idea of analyzing claims for conditions likely to be most readily influenced by health promotion programs is sensible. In many of our studies, we have analyzed utilization and cost patterns for what we call “lifestyle diagnosis groups,” or LDGs. For example, in a 1998 peer-reviewed study, we evaluated Procter & Gamble’s health promotion program and found a 36% difference in lifestyle-related costs in the third study year when comparing 3,993 program participants with 4,341 non-participants.

Although it’s important to analyze a subset of diagnoses when evaluating wellness programs, it is equally important to analyze utilization and costs for all conditions. After all, one’s actual well-being and perception of well-being influences health holistically, not just any one particular organ or body system.

Where we disagree…

Whether only randomized trials can determine whether workplace programs are effective. Health services research and the field of epidemiology have a long track record of studying naturally occurring phenomena and drawing conclusions from observations of those phenomena. That’s how we have learned what causes hospital-acquired infections. We have also learned from long-lasting epidemiological investigations like the Framingham studies that a sedentary lifestyle, smoking and obesity are causes of heart disease, diabetes and cancers.

These “natural experiments” inform the scientific community about what happens to individuals or groups “exposed” to a condition, where others are not. Natural experiments are employed when a randomized controlled trial (RCT) is impractical or unethical.

How does this apply to evaluation of workplace health promotion programs? Imagine trying to convince the head of human resources of a company to approve a double-blinded randomized trial that would test the effectiveness of a wellness program, over three to five years, by randomly assigning some workers to a comprehensive health promotion program that includes health coaching on smoking cessation, weight management, physical activity and stress reduction while other workers are denied access to the program. Not only that, the HR executive would be asked to allow the researcher to administer a series of blood tests to participants and non-participants, access their medical claims and ask workers to complete periodic health surveys. The employer would also be prohibited from instituting organizational policies promoting health while this experiment is underway.

It’s hard to imagine a situation in which a company executive would allow this, never mind an institutional review board at a university.

Alternatively, when health services researchers conduct natural experiments, care is taken to control for any confounding variables and address alternative hypotheses. In our research, we use statistical techniques such as propensity score matching and multivariate regression to compare the health and cost experience of “treatment” workers (those offered health-promotion programs) and “comparison” workers (those not offered the programs). Most often, when comparing participants with non-participants, we match entire populations exposed to a program (whether or not individuals participate in that program) and those not exposed. In that regard, we are investigating program impacts on population health and not only comparing outcomes for motivated participants in programs compared with less motivated non-participants.

We publish our analyses in peer-reviewed journals so that the scientific community can review and critique our methods. We are also transparent about the limitations to our research in these peer-reviewed articles.

By the way, there are experimental studies focused on large populations (not necessarily at the workplace) demonstrating the value of health-promotion programs. One such trial was recently concluded by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) as part of the senior risk reduction demonstration (SRRD). Two vendors were involved in the demonstration, which lasted two to three years.  Beneficiaries participating in Vendor A’s risk-reduction programs achieved statistically significant improvements in stress, general well-being and overall risk, and beneficiaries participating in Vendor B’s program achieved statistically significant improvements in back care, nutrition, physical activity, stress, general well-being and overall risk.

Interestingly, the interventions were determined to be “cost-neutral,” meaning that Medicare spending for participants in the intervention group was not statistically different from spending for participants in the control group. This was a large-scale study where about 50,000 beneficiaries were recruited and approximately 20,000 participated in the health-promotion program in any given year. The bottom line: Significant health improvements were achieved at no cost to the government.

Interpreting the data. Lewis et al. highlight errors in others’ presentation of results. I have no argument with that. That is, after all, what a peer review process is all about: Conduct the study, subject it to peer review and publish the findings. The problem is that Lewis et al. have not (yet) published any studies in which their interventions are evaluated, nor have their methods been subject to peer review. That is unfortunate because I believe (truly) that all of us can learn from vetted research studies and apply that knowledge to future evaluations.

I am the first to admit that the methods we use to evaluate wellness programs have evolved over time and are still undergoing revisions as we learn from our mistakes. I invite Lewis et al. to reveal their methods for evaluating workplace programs and to publish those methods in peer-reviewed publications — we can all benefit from that intelligence.

Lewis et al. point to a study conducted by Health Fitness Corp. (HFC) for Eastman Chemical, which earned the company the C. Everett Koop Award. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I am the president and CEO of the Health Project. which annually confers the Koop prize to organizations able to clearly and unambiguously document health improvements and cost savings for their employees.) Eastman Chemical’s application is online and subject to review.

In their analysis of the Eastman Chemical application, Lewis at al. complain that costs for participants and non-participants diverged in the baseline years of the program; therefore, it was not the program that explains cost savings. Here’s the real story: Eastman Chemical’s program has been in place since the early 1990s. The chart found on the website (unfortunately mislabeled) shows participant and non-participant medical costs at baseline (2004), in subsequent years and in the final year of the study (2008).

The study compares medical and drug claims for minimally engaged (non-participant) and engaged (participant) employees matched at baseline (using propensity score matching) on age, gender, employee status, insurance plan, medical costs and other variables. No significant differences were found between participant and non-participant costs at baseline, but their claims experience differed significantly at follow up. Although not a perfect study, the economic results, coupled with significant and positive health improvements in many of the health behaviors and risk factors examined for a multi-year cohort of employees, convinced the Health Project board that Eastman Chemical earned the C. Everett Koop prize in 2011.

Whether return-on-investment (ROI) is the only metric for evaluating workplace health promotion programs. It seems that too much of the debate and controversy surrounding workplace health promotion is focused narrowly on whether these programs save money. If that were the aperture by which we judged medical care, in general, we would withhold treatment from almost every patient and for almost every procedure, with the exception of a few preventive services that are either cost-neutral or minimally cost-saving. That makes no sense for a compassionate society.

In a February 2009 Health Affairs article, I argued that prevention should not be held to a higher standard than treatment; both should be evaluated on their relative cost-effectiveness (not cost-benefit) in achieving positive health outcomes and improved quality of life.

Take a simple example of two employees. One has just suffered a heart attack and undergoes a coronary bypass. If the individual is willing, he is then engaged in counseling that encourages him to quit smoking, become more physically active, eat a healthy diet, manage stress, take medications to control blood pressure and see the doctor for regularly scheduled preventive visits. For that individual, I would be surprised if an employer providing medical coverage would demand a positive ROI.

How about a second employee? That person is overweight, smokes cigarettes, eats an unhealthy diet, is sedentary, experiences stress at work and has hypertension. He has not (yet) suffered a heart attack, although most would agree he is at high risk. To justify a health promotion program for that employee and others in the company, many employers insist on a positive ROI. Why is that a requirement? If a well-designed program can achieve population health improvement (as demonstrated using valid measures and an appropriate study design), and the program is cost-neutral or relatively inexpensive, why wouldn’t an employer invest in a wellness program, especially if is viewed as high value to both workers and their organization?

It’s time to change the metric for success. Instead of demanding a high ROI, employers should require data supporting high engagement rates by workers, satisfaction with program components, population health improvement, an ability to attract and retain top talent, fewer safety incidents, higher productivity and perceived organizational support for one’s health and well-being. That’s where program evaluations should be focused, not simply on achieving a positive ROI.

I appreciate the reality that some employers may still require an ROI result. Fortunately, there is evidence, published in peer-reviewed journals, that well-designed and effectively executed programs, founded on best practices and behavior change theory, can achieve a positive ROI. I won’t re-litigate this point, other than to point newcomers to a large body of literature showing significant health improvements and net cost savings from workplace heath promotion programs. (See, for example, studies for Johnson & JohnsonHighmark and Citibank and several literature reviews on the topic).

I challenge proponents and opponents of workplace wellness to direct their energy away from proving an ROI to measuring one or several of the important outcomes of interest to employers. Achievement of these outcomes is only possible when management and labor work toward a mutually beneficial goal — creating a healthy workplace environment. Health promotion programs require time to take root and be self-sustaining, but the benefits to employees and their organizations are worth the effort.

Workplace Wellness Shows No Savings

During the last decade, workplace wellness programs have become commonplace in corporate America. The majority of US employers with 50 or more employees now offer the programs. A 2010 meta-analysis that was favorable to workplace wellness programs, published in Health Affairs, provided support for their uptake. This meta-analysis, plus a well-publicized “success” story from Safeway, coalesced into the so-called Safeway Amendment in the Affordable Care Act (ACA). That provision allows employers to tie a substantial and increasing share of employee insurance premiums to health status/behaviors and subsidizes implementation of such programs by smaller employers. The assumption was that improved employee health would reduce healthcare costs for employers.

Subsequently, however, Safeway’s story has been discredited. And the lead author of the 2010 meta-analysis, Harvard School of Public Health Professor Katherine Baicker, has cautioned on several occasions that more research is needed to draw any definitive conclusions. Now, more than four years into the ACA, we conclude that these programs increase, rather than decrease, employer spending on healthcare, with no net health benefit. The programs also cause overutilization of screening and check-ups in generally healthy working-age adult populations, put undue stress on employees and provide incentives for unhealthy forms of weight-loss.

Through a review of the research literature and primary sources, we have found that wellness programs produce a return-on-investment (ROI) of less than 1-to-1 savings to cost. This blog post will consider the results of two compelling study designs — population-based wellness-sensitive medical event analysis and randomized controlled trials (RCTs). Then it will look at the popular, although weaker, participant vs. non-participant study design. (It is beyond the scope of this posting to question vendors’ non-peer-reviewed claims of savings that do not rely on any recognized study design, though those claims are commonplace.)

Population Based Wellness-Sensitive Medical Event Analysis

A wellness-sensitive medical event analysis tallies the entire range of primary inpatient diagnoses that would likely be affected by a wellness program implemented across an employee population. The idea is that a successful wellness program would reduce the number of wellness-sensitive medical events in a population as compared with previous years. By observing the entire population and not just voluntary, presumably motivated, participants or a “high-risk” cohort (meaning the previous period’s high utilizers), both self-selection bias and regression to the mean are avoided.

The field’s only outcomes validation program requires this specific analysis. One peer-reviewed study using this type of analysis — of the wellness program at BJC HealthCare in St. Louis — examined a population of hospital employees whose overall health status was poor enough that, without a wellness program, they would have averaged more than twice the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project (HCUP) national inpatient sample (NIS) mean for wellness-sensitive medical events. Yet even this group’s cost savings generated by a dramatic reduction in wellness-sensitive medical events from an abnormally high baseline rate were offset by “similar increases in non-inpatient costs.”

Randomized Controlled Trials and Meta-Analyses

Authors of a 2014 American Journal of Health Promotion (AJHP) meta-analysis stated: “We found a negative ROI in randomized controlled trials.” This was the first AJHP-published study to state that wellness in general loses money when measured validly. This 2014 meta-analysis, by Baxter et al., was also the first meta-analysis attempt to replicate the findings of the aforementioned meta-analysis published in February 2010 in Health Affairs, which had found a $3.27-to-1 savings from wellness programs.

Another wellness expert, Dr. Soeren Mattke, who has co-written multiple RAND reports on wellness that are generally unfavorable, such as a study of PepsiCo’s wellness program published in Health Affairs, dismissed the 2010 paper because of its reliance on outdated studies. Baicker et. al.’s report was also challenged by Lerner and colleagues, whose review of the economic literature on wellness concluded that there is too little credible data to draw any conclusions.

Other Study Designs

More often than not wellness studies simply compare participants to “matched” non-participants or compare a subset of participants (typically high-risk individuals) to themselves over time. These studies usually show savings; however, in the most carefully analyzed case, the savings from wellness activities were exclusively attributable to disease management activities for a small and very ill subset rather than from health promotion for the broader population, which reduced medical spending by only $1 for every $3 spent on the program.

Whether participant vs. non-participant savings are because of the wellness programs themselves or because of fundamentally different and unmatchable attitudes is therefore the key question. For instance, smokers self-selecting into a smoking cessation program may be more predisposed to quit than smokers who decline such a program. Common sense says it is not possible to “match” motivated volunteers with non-motivated non-volunteers, because of the unobservable variable of willingness to engage, even if both groups’ claims history and demographics look the same on paper.

A leading wellness vendor CEO, Henry Albrecht of Limeade, concedes this, saying: “Looking at how participants improve versus non-participants…ignores self-selection bias. Self-improvers are likely to be drawn to self-improvement programs, and self-improvers are more likely to improve.” Further, passive non-participants can be tracked all the way through the study because they cannot “drop out” from not participating, but dropouts from the participant group — whose results would presumably be unfavorable — are not counted and are considered lost to follow-up. So the study design is undermined by two major limitations, both of which would tend to overstate savings.

As an example of overstated savings, consider one study conducted by Health Fitness Corp. (HFC) about the impact of the wellness program it ran for Eastman Chemical’s more than 8,000 eligible employees. In 2011, that program won a C. Everett Koop Award, an annual honor that aims to promote health programs “with demonstrated effectiveness in influencing personal health habits and the cost-effective use of health care services” (and for which both HFC and Eastman Chemical have been listed as sponsors). The study developed for Eastman’s application for the Koop awards tested the participants-vs-non-participants equivalency hypothesis.

From that application, Figure 1 below shows that, despite the fact that no wellness program was offered until 2006, after separation of the population into participants and non-participants in 2004, would-be participants spent 8% less on medical care in 2005 than would-be non-participants, even before the program started in 2006. In subsequent presentations about the program, HFC included the 8% 2005 savings as part of 24% cumulative savings attributed to the program through 2008, even though the program did not yet exist.

Figure 1

Lewis-Figure 1

Source: http://www.thehealthproject.com/documents/2011/EastmanEval.pdf

The other common study design that shows a positive impact for wellness identifies a high-risk cohort, asks for volunteers from that cohort to participate and then tracks their results while ignoring dropouts. The only control is the cohort’s own previous high-risk scores. In studying health promotion program among employees of a Western U.S. school district, Brigham Young University researcher Ray Merrill concluded in 2014: “The worksite wellness program effectively lowered risk measures among those [participants] identified as high-risk at baseline.”

However, using participants as their own control is not a well-accepted study design. Along with the participation bias, it ignores the possibility that some people decline in risk on their own, perhaps because (independent of any workplace program) they at least temporarily lose weight, quit smoking or ameliorate other risk factors absent the intervention. Research by Dr. Dee Edington, previously at the University of Michigan, documents a substantial “natural flow of risk” absent a program.

Key Mathematical and Clinical Factors

Data compiled by the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project (HCUP) shows that only 8% of hospitalizations are primary-coded for the wellness-sensitive medical event diagnoses used in the BJC study. To determine whether it is possible to save money, an employer would have to tally its spending on wellness-sensitive events just like HCUP and BJC did. That represents the theoretical savings when multiplied by cost per admissions. The analysis would compare that figure to the incentive cost (now averaging $594) and the cost of the wellness program, screenings, doctor visits, follow-ups recommended by the doctor, benefits consultant fees and program management time. For example, if spending per covered person were $6,000 and hospitalizations were half of a company’s cost ($3,000), potential savings per person from eliminating 8% of hospitalizations would be $240, not enough to cover a typical incentive payment even if every relevant hospitalization were eliminated.

There is no clinical evidence to support the conclusion that three pillars of workplace wellness — annual workplace screenings or annual checkups for all employees (and sometimes spouses) and incentives for weight loss — are cost-effective. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends that only blood pressure be screened annually on everyone. For other biometric values, the benefits of annual screening (as all wellness programs require) may not exceed the harms of potential false positives or of over-diagnosis and overtreatment, and only a subset of high-risk people should be screened, as with glucose. Likewise, most literature finds that annual checkups confer no net health benefit for the asymptomatic non-diagnosed population. Note that in both cases, harms are compared with benefits, without considering the economics. Even if harms roughly equal benefits, adding screening costs to the equation creates a negative return.

Much of wellness is now about providing incentivizes for weight loss. In addition to the lack of evidence that weight loss saves money (Lewis, A, Khanna V, Montrose S., “It’s time to disband corporate weight loss programs,” Am J Manag Care, In press, February 2015), financial incentives tied to weight loss between two weigh-ins may encourage overeating before the first weigh-in and crash-dieting before the second, both of which are unhealthy. One large health plan offers a weight-loss program that is potentially unhealthier still, encouraging employees to use the specific weight-loss drugs that Dartmouth’s Steven Woloshin and Lisa Schwartz have argued in the Journal of the American Medical Association never should have been approved because of the drugs’ potential harms.

In sum, with tens of millions of employees subjected to these unpopular and expensive programs, it is time to reconfigure workplace wellness. Because today’s conventional programs fail to pay for themselves and confer no proven net health benefit (and may on balance hurt health through over-diagnosis and promotion of unhealthy eating patterns), conventional wellness programs may fail the Americans with Disabilities Act’s “business necessity” standard if the financial forfeiture for non-participants is deemed coercive, as is alleged in employee lawsuits against three companies, including Honeywell.

Especially in light of these lawsuits, a viable course of action — which is also the economically preferable solution for most companies and won’t harm employee health — is simply to pause, demand that vendors and consultants answer open questions about their programs and await more guidance from the administration. A standard that “wellness shall do no harm,” by being in compliance with the USPSTF (as well as the preponderance of the literature where the USPSTF is silent), would be a good starting point.