Tag Archives: health affairs

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.

Wellness Industry’s Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Week

Just as the Bear Stearns implosion presaged the 2008 financial crisis, the events of the last few days, building on earlier events, are presaging the collapse of the “pry, poke, prod and punish” wellness industry.

For those readers still living in Biosphere 2, here is a brief review of how we got here:

First was Honeywell’s self-immolation with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). We’re not sure how Honeywell’s benefits consultants failed to advise that all the company needed to do was offer a simple wellness program alternative that didn’t require medical exams, and there would be no way Honeywell would get hit with an  EEOC lawsuit. But they didn’t.

Second, the Business Roundtable (BRT) decided to go to the mat with the president over this EEOC-wellness issue. It is possible that there is some conspiracy at work here, where large companies really want to retain the ability to shame and fine overweight employees into quitting (because you can’t fire people for being overweight). But we lean toward a less sensationalistic interpretation: that the BRT is simply getting lousy advice, likely from consultants whose business model depends on more companies doing wellness. Because the BRT’s member CEOs have actual day jobs, they can be excused for taking the BRT’s word for the benefits of wellness and not investigating this industry on their own; if they did, they would find that the wellness industry attracts more than its share of well-intentioned innumerates and outright scoundrels, perhaps because the industry lacks adult supervision.

Third was our popular Health Affairs posting, which spurred see-we-told-you-so pickups by the Incidental Economist and Los Angeles Times, the latter of which helpfully added the word “scam” to the discussion.

Thus, we bore witness to a perfect storm, the first-ever lay media feeding frenzy on wellness, from both the right-leaning Federalist and the, uh, non-right-leaning All Things Considered. Those would be the first times wellness in general (as opposed to specific programs like, for instance, the Truven/Highmark Penn State debacle or Nebraska’s falsified outcomes) has attracted the lay media. Additionally, the comments, even on the typically erudite All Things Considered, were merciless. Skeptics that we are, we still underestimated employee resentment of forced screenings and risk assessments.

The wellness true believers’ rebuttals were quite in character. As we say in Surviving Workplace Wellness, in this field you don’t have to challenge the data to invalidate it. You merely have to read the data. It will invalidate itself. Because most of the true believers’ “A Team” are ethically compromised, they had to go to their bench to find a rebutter. Against all those eviscerations in the major national media, they countered with: Siyan Baxter, a graduate student at the University of Tasmania, who claimed a positive return on investment (ROI) for wellness. She wrote in a journal that contains the words “health promotion” in its very title and has never once published a negative article about wellness savings. Publication bias, anyone? That isn’t even the punchline. The punchline is that, as our book predicted, Ms. Baxter self-invalidated. She says, right in the article: “Randomized controlled trials show negative ROIs.”

How did she still come up with a positive assessment of wellness? Because she “averaged” those ROIs with studies she herself describes as low quality, to get a positive ROI. (These 5- to 30-year-old studies were conducted in an era when, as the award-winning book The Big Fat Surprise observes, the American Heart Association bestowed a “heart-healthy” endorsement on every box of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes.)

Her approach is, of course, is like averaging Ptolemy and Copernicus to conclude that the earth revolves halfway around the sun.

The other rebuttal was from Professor Katherine Baicker, who is considered a deity in this field because she basically launched it with a claim, published five years ago in Health Affairs, that wellness achieves a very precise 3.27-to-1 ROI. (As with Baxter, the wellness programs where Baicker found savings were conducted during the era when the AHA apparently conflated Tony the Tiger with Dean Ornish). Having recently stated she no longer had interest in wellness and having more recently blamed readers for relying on the headline “Workplace Wellness Can Generate Savings” and not reading the fine print, she nonetheless decided to defend her legacy.

Her defense on NPR is worth reviewing. Baicker said: “There are very few studies that have reliable data on the costs and benefits.” That, of course, is not the case – the wellness true believers’ own meta-analysis above shows that in well-designed assessments, the programs lose money. Baicker also said: “It could be that when the full set of evidence comes in, it will have huge returns on investment, and the billions we’re spending on it are warranted.”

This all sounds a little different from the three significant digits of: “Wellness achieves a 3.27-to-1 ROI.” And it is invalid because, as any epidemiologist knows – and as Dr. Gilbert Welch elegantly explained in Overdiagnosed — if an impact is truly meaningful, it would show up in a small or medium-sized sample. This means that, if indeed there were “billions” to be saved, we’d know it based on the hundreds of millions of employee-years that have been subjected to wellness in the last 10 years.

The “full set of evidence” is already in….and it’s game, set and match to the skeptics.

CEOs Defy Common Sense on Wellness

By now, readers of this and many other outlets know that conventional workplace wellness doesn’t work. Period. It’s not that there is no evidence for it. It’s that all the evidence is against it. The “evidence” in favor of conventional wellness is easily disproven as being the result of gross incompetence or dishonesty. Occasionally, as in the American Journal of Health Promotion, investigators even manage to disprove their own savings claims without intending to. As we say in Surviving Workplace Wellness: “In wellness, you don’t have to challenge the data to invalidate it. You merely have to read the data. It will invalidate itself.”

Just before Thanksgiving, both Health Affairs (with our blog post) and Soeren Mattke, the often-misquoted author of multiple RAND studies (in a comment to that post), weighed in with the same conclusion, as described in the headline: “Workplace Wellness Produces No Savings.”

No longer can anyone claim with a straight face that “pry, poke, prod and punish” wellness programs saved money, or were even beneficial for employee health.

And yet…

Within one business day of the posting, Reuters’ Sharon Begley reported that on Tuesday, Dec. 2, the Business Roundtable’s (BRT) CEO is having a sit-down meeting with President Obama to demand exactly the opposite of what all the evidence shows: He wants more flexibility on wellness. In particular, the BRT wants the administration to call off the EEOC watchdogs, who have recently attacked Honeywell  and others for forcing employees into medical exams that appear to violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The BRT’s goal is to allow companies to punish unhealthy workers to the limits of the Affordable Care Act’s wellness provision. (Recall from our earlier postings that the ACA wellness provision was modeled after the Safeway wellness program, which Safeway later admitted did not even exist during the period for which the company claimed it saved money.) In essence, the BRT leadership wants to make their employees love wellness whether they like it or not.

This complete disconnect between the data and the BRT demands can be explained only one of two ways.

(1)    The CEOs who compose the Business Roundtable have been duped into thinking wellness saves money, because they aren’t bright enough to Google it for themselves and learn that it doesn’t.

(2)    The CEOs who compose the Business Roundtable are very bright and have figured out that the only way they can seriously manage their healthcare costs is by fining or shaming employees with chronic disease or obesity into leaving their companies…or at the very least collecting large fines from them.

Let’s examine each possibility in turn.

As to the first, people don’t get to the C-Suite by simply accepting information that their vendors tell them, especially when the numbers obviously don’t add up. Events that can be prevented by wellness programs, like heart attacks, account for only about 8.4% of  hospital spending, or less than 4% of total medical spending in the commercially insured population. The C-suite also must know that, as with the tobacco industry years ago, when the only people defending an industry are people who make their living from it, then the industry is a wholly illegitimate enterprise. The first possible explanation would therefore need to be termed an impossibility.

The second alternative seems like something only a conspiracy theorist could conjure, but as Sherlock Holmes said: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

These CEOs must know that these “let’s play doctor” programs and fines are expensive, intrusive, ineffective and embarrassing for the employees…and take a major toll on morale. One organization, Penn State University, faced an employee revolt and backed down. Vik is currently in a wellness program that is eerily Penn State-like, and he is documenting his experiences.

And surely someone has informed the BRT that the heart attack rate is only about 1 in 800 annually in the commercially insured population, while using wellness programs to identify all the other diseases they hope to prevent or control will merely drive up employers’ drug spending; these nascent conditions wouldn’t become debilitating until years into retirement. Guidelines promulgated by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) call for judicious use of clinical screenings in various at-risk subpopulations, (with a few exceptions, such as blood pressure). By contrast, wellness screening is done to all employees usually at least once a year. That screening frequency multiplies the odds of false positives, especially in younger populations.

So why go to the mat with the president over these programs? Perhaps CEOs believe that fatter employees have lower productivity, which is probably the case – if you happen to own a package delivery service or a ballclub. Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine that weight affects one’s ability to answer the phone, conduct a meeting or handle almost any other task commonly required in today’s workplace. And these CEOs’ own actions contradict any claims about how weight loss leads to greater productivity: Most of the growth in line manufacturing jobs takes place in states with high obesity rates…but lower wages. Obviously, the tangible benefit of the latter overwhelms any offset by the former, or hiring practices would be different.

Unless there is an alternate explanation (or the BRT simply doesn’t understand the data), this BRT demand of the president must be interpreted more cynically: It’s the opening salvo in an attack against aging and chronically ill employees whom employers simply aren’t allowed to fire any more. Employers want to get rid of these employees because – often due to circumstances beyond these employees’ control – their healthcare expenses are believed to be higher.

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.

Wellness: An Industry Conceived in Lies, Retractions and Hypocrisy

Wellness has failed.  Get used to it. 

Understanding why wellness has failed requires a brief history lesson of the wellness provision of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The wellness provision was based on the success story at Safeway and a seminal article in Health Affairs — both of which turn out to be made up. 

To begin this series on the failure of wellness programs, let’s look at Safeway, which is so central to the ACA wellness provision that the provision is sometimes called the Safeway Amendment. The Safeway CEO, Steven Burd, claimed to have reduced healthcare spending by 40% using a wellness program. He wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, testified before Congress and became friends with President Obama even as Sen. John McCain also cited Safeway as a role model. The slight problem with all of this: Safeway’s claim was absolutely, unequivocally, made up.

A front-page article in the Washington Post pointed out that the wellness program didn’t even exist at the time Safeway’s healthcare costs fell. Instead, the decline in corporate spending was because of the implementation of a high-deductible plan, shifting cost to employees. (Curiously, once Safeway actually did implement a wellness program, its health spending rose faster than average. This was probably a coincidence because, even today, only a small fraction of Safeway’s workplace participates in the program. 

Next came the seminal article in the prestigious journal Health Affairs, written by equally prestigious Harvard economists Katherine Baicker and David Cutler. The article was titled, “Workplace Wellness Programs Can Generate Savings.” Not “could possibly generate savings” or “may generate savings on a good day,” but “can generate savings.” These economists reviewed all the published evidence and reported quite a definitive “3.27-to-1” return on investment from wellness.

This article is easily invalidated on two points. First, the overriding rule of a study is that it must be replicable. This article was published four years ago and has yet to be replicated. Quite the opposite: Every subsequent article in Health Affairs has shown that even with the most generous assumptions imaginable, like leaving many elements of cost out of the ROI calculation, wellness doesn’t save money

Second, in July, lead author Baicker had enough sense to walk back the article’s conclusion, saying on NPR’s Marketplace that “it’s too early to tell” if there are savings. She also said that employers need to “experiment” to “see what happens with weight and blood pressure.”

Besides the retraction, two other things about this interview invalidate wellness:

  1. Biostatistics 101 states that the smaller the effect, the larger the population needed to show it. To admit after decades of wellness programs involving millions of people that “it’s too early to tell” means that whatever effect there is (if any) would be very subtle, so subtle that it couldn’t possibly merit an entire industry and significant workplace disruption to achieve it.
  2. Except at the extremes, for which a companywide wellness program isn’t needed, “weight and blood pressure” have almost no effect on corporate healthcare spending. Corporate spending on overweight people, during their working years, may be greater than for thinner people (the evidence is mixed), but there is no evidence that weight loss across an employee population can be maintained, and the reverse is usually true—most people who lose weight regain it. Controlling blood pressure is far more likely to increase corporate spending than reduce it. Rates of stroke in the working-age population are disappearingly low to begin with, and the cost of a stroke is far lower than the cost of controlling the blood pressure of 1,000 employees to prevent one. (Some companies will say they are “medicalizing their workplaces” for humanitarian reasons and not to save money, which is laudable…though, as subsequent installments in this series will show, misguided. In any event, the article was about saving money.)

Along with Safeway’s lie and Baicker’s retraction comes the Business Roundtable’s hypocrisy. The Business Roundtable was and is the major lobbying force in favor of wellness. Claiming they want to “help people” and “foster a culture of health” for “employees and their families” while opposing ACA and the minimum-wage increase is not even the hypocrisy here. The hypocrisy is that the head of the Business Roundtable’s health committee, Gary Loveman, is also the CEO of Caesars Entertainment. In that “day job” running a chain of casinos, he poisons more employees with second-hand smoke than any other CEO in the U.S.

Perhaps he feels that health hazard is more than offset by the meaningless seven-point reduction in blood pressure that he says wellness has achieved for the small segment of active participants committed enough to stay with the program. (He didn’t measure the dropouts and non-participants, whose results may not have supported his narrative.) A skeptic might therefore conclude that Business Roundtable CEOs support wellness only because it provides an excuse to dock some workers 30% of their health premium, and pocket it themselves.

To wrap up Part One, the entire premise of employers “playing doctor” by medicalizing their workplaces is invalid. It is no wonder, then, that the science and outcomes are made up, as well – those are topics for future installments. However, if you stay with this series (or cut to the chase and read the book), you’ll find that there are solutions, and those solutions incorporate everything that wellness doesn’t – science, morale and cost-effectiveness – while emphasizing the role of the broker and consultant in designing the benefit.