Tag Archives: katherine baicker

Wellness Industry’s No-Good, Very Bad Year

OK, this time I’m not the one causing the kerfuffle in the wellness industry, though I will confess to being a force multiplier.

Not since 2014, when the very unstable morons at the Incidental Economist made fun of the very stable geniuses who give out the Koop Award and also unequivocally concluded that wellness loses money — combined with continued fallout from the Penn State debacle and the Nebraska scandal — has the wellness industry had such a bad year. And it’s only February.

Let’s review what’s happened so far in 2018. First, a federal judge ruled that voluntary wellness programs need to be — get ready — voluntary. The EEOC’s responded with the legalese equivalent of:  “Fine, be that way.”

Next, Willis Towers Watson did something that might get them in hot water with the very stable wellness industry leaders: They were honest. They published a study revealing that employees hate wellness even more — way more — than they hate waiting for the cable guy to show up.

Finally, the very unstable National Bureau of Economic Research conducted a controlled study finding basically no impact whatsoever from a wellness program. More importantly, they specifically invalidated the “pre-post” methodology. Even more importantly, they specifically invalidated 78% of the studies used in Kate Baicker’s “Harvard Study” meta-analysis.

Here is an interesting piece of trivia: The lead researcher is an assistant professor at the Harris School of Public Policy. Why is this interesting? Because Katherine Baicker — the Typhoid Mary of wellness, whose THC-infused study claiming a 3.27-to-1 ROI for every dollar invested in wellness is the basis for essentially every subsequent genius wellness outcomes claim — is now the dean of that very same Harris SchoolI’m just guessing here, but I’d say it’s gotta be a trifle embarrassing when your own subordinate publicly disproves your own study. I mean, it’s one thing for me, RANDBloomberg and anyone else with five minutes, internet access and a calculator to do it, but…your very subordinate?

See also: The Wellness Industry Pleads the Fifth  

On the other hand, the researcher, Damon Jones, just demonstrated not just amazing competence but amazing integrity, as well. In other words, he has no future in wellness.

The Wellness Empire Strikes Back

How does the wellness industry respond to these smoking guns threatening their entire revenue stream? Apparently, there is little cause for concern on their planet.

Let’s start with America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the health insurance industry lobbying group. Here is AHIP’s oxymoronic Wellness Smartbrief (Jan. 26) on the NBER research. Yes, it summarizes the same wellness-emasculating study as the one above, though you could never guess it from the headline: Healthier employees participate more in wellness programs but still save money

Continuing, AHIP said:

Offering incentives for completing wellness activities might be more cost-effective than offering incentives for wellness screening, a recent study of a comprehensive program found. 

Perhaps AHIP has been infiltrated by Russian trolls, because here’s what the NBER article actually said about “completing wellness activities”:

We…do not find any effect of treatment on the number of visits to campus gym facilities or on the probability of participating in a popular annual community running event, two health behaviors that are relatively simple for a motivated employee to change over the course of one year.

AHIP continues:

Wellness programs might attract mostly employees who are already fitness-conscious, but the potential to attract healthy employees whose medical spending is already low could nonetheless be a boon to employers, the researchers found.

And on the subject of “the potential to attract healthy employees” as being a “boon to employers,” the authors actually said:

We further find that selection into wellness programs is associated with both lower average spending and healthier behaviors prior to the beginning of the study. Thus, one motivation for a firm to adopt a wellness program is its potential to screen for workers with low medical spending. Considering only health care costs, reducing the share of non-participating (high-spending) employees by just 4.5 percentage points would suffice to cover the costs of our wellness program intervention.

In other words, you can apply some workplace eugenics to your company by using wellness to weed out obese employees, employees with chronic or congenital diseases and so on. Good for you!

Soon, if AHIP and others have their way, there will be no need for guesswork in eugenics: Employer wellness programs will be able to screen these employees out based on their actual DNA.

AHIP’s take on AARP v. EEOC

And now, AHIP’s take on this landmark case, their ace reporters scooping everyone with this Feb. 2 headline on the Dec. 20 court ruling:

Employers may have to tweak wellness programs after court ruling

Here are more typical headlines on that court ruling, headlines that came out the same month that the court ruling came out. Perhaps AHIP used the interim six weeks to use focus groups to test various verbs until they settled on…tweak???

AHIP:  It’s not just the headlines

One prominent healthcare executive recently attended an AHIP conference and reports:

I just returned from one of the dumbest meetings I’ve ever attended in Washington. Report of a new “study” by AHIP. Turns out people don’t mind health costs all that much, they just want more benefits. And everything is hunky-dory with their health plans, people like them so much. They love wellness benefits and crave more. Prescription drug prices have been nicely controlled thanks to the competitive marketplace (no, I am not making this up or exaggerating for drama). For every $1 employers spend on benefits workers get $4 in value. Priorities for SHRM rep: Fitbits for all employees, solving the outrage that only 20% of her employees got an annual physical. 85 cents of every dollar spent on healthcare goes to chronic disease.

Over these same two hours, I’d estimate about a thousand employees were misinformed, harmed or harassed by wellness vendors, roughly equal numbers of  employees got useless annual checkups, employers spent about $200 million on healthcare and 40 people died in hospitals from preventable errors. But I’m being such a Debbie Downer! I’m going home to read Why Nobody Believes the Numbers to remove myself from this alternative universe.

Enter the Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO)

HERO’s Prevaricator-in-Chief, Paul Terry, is demonstrating his usual leadership abilities in this crisis, of course. After all, HERO is the wellness industry trade association, and these three items — the NBER invalidating their product, employees hating their product and a federal judge forbidding them to force employees to use their product — represent existential threats to his “pry, poke and prod” members.

Here is quite literally his only blog post on any of these three items:

Teddy Roosevelt said, “complaining about a problem without posing a solution is called whining.” It’s a quote that also reminds me why I’ve not thought of angry bloggers who target health promotion [vendors] as bullies. Though they relish trolling for bad apples, their scolding is toothless, more the stuff of chronic whiners.

I suspect he is talking about me here as the “chronic whiner” who is  “scolding” them. Or perhaps he is referring to the “angry bloggers” at  the Los Angeles Times, the New York TimesSlate or STATNews, because those “toothless” publications seem to be scolding wellness vendors more than I ever have. For instance, I’ve never called wellness vendors’ offering a “scam” or a “sham.” I simply quote these very stable wellness geniuses verbatim, as above or below, or last week.

See also: Wellness: An Industry Conceived in Lies, Retractions and Hypocrisy  

Being quoted verbatim, not angry bloggers, is their worst nightmare. (One thing I would concede, though, is that “Paul Terry and the Angry Bloggers” would be a great name for a rock band.)

Yep, looks like the implosion of his industry is all my fault. Otherwise, I’m not quite sure who is the “angry blogger” he is referring to, other than to note that Mr. Terry himself seems to blog a tad angrily himself, both above, and here

Why I choose to ignore the blogger critics: We’re fortunate to work in a profession with a scant number of vociferous critics. My take is that there is one thing these few angry loners [Editor’s note: the complete “scant list” of the 220 “few angry loners” who have been “vociferous critics” can be found here] want more desperately than attention: that’s to be taken seriously. What they fail to comprehend is that as they’ve gotten ever more farfetched and vitriolic in search of the former, they’ve cinched their inability to attain the latter.

Baiting people with misinformation and offensive insults (but just a tad under highly offensive) is a pesky ploy that trolls hope will eventually land a bite that confers credibility where there is none. Even reading such drivel is a form of taking the bait; responding is swallowing it whole. Some say dishonesty should not go unchallenged and I respect their view; nevertheless, I’m convinced responding to bloggers who show disdain for our field is an utter waste of time. I’ve rarely been persuaded to respond to bloggers, and each time I did it affirmed my worry that, more than a waste, it’s counter-productive.

and especially here, a seemingly incongruous decision to “act out” by someone who claims to be “choosing to ignore the blogger critics.”

Having read years of my “drivel” alongside Mr. Terry’s posting explaining why you shouldn’t “swallow this bait,” perhaps readers might opine here: Which of us, exactly, is the “chronic whiner”?

Coincidentally, when I run live health-and-wellness trivia contests, the first of our three rules is: No Whining. Seems to me that he would have just violated it. Indeed the only rule HERO hasn’t violated so far is #3 below. Not that I want to put ideas in their head.

Genetic Testing: The New Wellness Frontier

The Wall Street Journal just reported that Genetic Testing May Be Coming to Your Office Soon. This is all well and good, assuming employees want their health insurer’s buddies collecting their DNA for no good reason, handling it, selling it and possibly losing it.

This is not us talking. This is what the genetic testing company itself says on its website. You can read all about it here.

We will focus on the fact that this genetic testing simply doesn’t save money – even according to a study by the main proponents of this dystopian scheme, Aetna and its buddies at the ironically named Newtopia.

If engineers learn more from one bridge that falls down than from 100 that stay up, this new Aetna-Newtopia study is the Tacoma Narrows of wellness industry study design. No article anywhere – including our most recent in Harvard Business Review – has more effectively eviscerated the fiction that wellness saves money than Aetna just did in a self-financed self-immolation published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. We hope the people who give out Koop Awards to their customers and clients will read this article and finally learn that massive reductions in cost associated with trivial improvements in risk are because of self-selection by participants, not because of wellness programs. And certainly not because of wellness programs centered on DNA collection.

Aetna studied Aetna employees who, by Aetna’s own admission, didn’t have anything wrong with them, other than being at risk for developing metabolic syndrome, defined as “a cluster of conditions that increase your risk for heart attack, stroke and diabetes.”

In other words, Aetna took the wellness industry’s obsession with hyperdiagnosis to its extreme: The “diagnosis” of those Aetna studied was that they were at risk for being at risk. Not only did they not have diabetes or heart disease, they didn’t even have a syndrome that put them at risk for developing diabetes or heart disease. You and I should be so healthy.

As this table shows, after one year, the changes in health indicators between the control and study groups were trivial (e.g., a difference in waist measurement of less than 3/10 of an inch), only the change in triglycerides was statistically significant, and just barely (p=0.05). The control group actually outperformed the study group in three of the six measured variables, as would be predicted by chance. Bottom line: Nothing happened.

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Yet Aetna reported savings of $1,464 per participant in the first year. This figure is more than 20 times higher than what Aetna’s own HERO Report says gets spent in total on medical events that could be affected by wellness programs. The figure is also far higher than Katherine Baicker’s claim of a 3.27-to-1 return on wellness spending. (Yes, in keeping with wellness industry tradition, Aetna cited the claim even though it has been thoroughly discredited and basically retracted; only now, because the Baicker study is six years old, Aetna feels compelled to insist that it is “recent.”)

How did Aetna achieve such a high savings figure in a legitimate, randomized controlled trial (RCT)? Simple. That savings was not the result of the legitimate RCT. Having gone through the trouble of setting up an RCT, Aetna largely ignored that study design.

As Aetna’s own table above shows, nothing happened. Spending was a bit lower for the invited group, but obviously there couldn’t have been attribution to the program. A responsible and unbiased researcher might have said: “While there is a slight positive variance between the spending on the control group and the spending on the invitee group that wouldn’t begin to cover the cost of our DNA testing, we can’t attribute that variance to this program anyway. The subjects were healthy to begin with, there was no change in clinical indicators and we didn’t measure wellness-sensitive medical events even though we know from our own HERO report both that those represent only a tiny fraction of total spending, and that those are the only thing that a wellness program can influence.”

Instead, Aetna coaxed about 14% of the invitees to give up their DNA and measured savings on that small sample. (More than coincidentally, that decidedly uninspiring 14% participation rate was about the same as the Aetna-Newtopia debacle at the Jackson Labs reference site-from-hell. Basically, employees don’t want their DNA collected, and DNA turns out to be quite controversial as a tool to predict heart disease down the road, let alone during the next 12 months. Further, Newtopia admits that it stores employee DNA, that lots of people have access to it and that Newtopia could lose it.)

The DNA seems to have had precious little to do with the actual wellness program. This Aetna program seems like a classic wellness intervention of exactly the type that has never been shown to work, with the DNA being only an entertaining sidebar. The subjects themselves exhibited no interest in hearing about their DNA-based predictions.

This is the first time a study has compared the result of an RCT to the result of a participants-only subset of the same population. The result: a mathematically and clinically impossible savings figure on the subset of active participants, and an admission of no separation in actual health status between the control and invitee groups by the end of the program period.

So Aetna accidentally proved what we’ve been saying for years about the fundamental bias in wellness study design that creates the illusion of savings:

Participants in wellness studies will always massively outperform non-participants – even when the program doesn’t change health status and even when there was no program for the “participants” to participate in.

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.

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.

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.