Tag Archives: khanna

How CDC Sparked the Wellness Legend

The wellness emphasis in the Affordable Care Act is built around the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) call to action in 2009 about chronic disease: The Power to Prevent, the Call to Control. On the summary page, we learn some of what the CDC calls “arresting facts”:

  •  “Chronic diseases cause seven in 10 deaths each year in the U.S.”
  •   “About 133 million Americans — nearly one in two adults — live with at least one chronic illness.”
  •   “75% of our healthcare spending is on people with chronic conditions.”

Shocking — that is, in terms of how misleading or even false the claims are and of how they created the wellness legend.

Take the statement that “chronic diseases cause seven in 10 deaths.” We have to die of something. Would it be better to die of accidents? Suicides and homicides? Mercury poisoning? Side effects of measles vaccinations gone awry?

The second statistic is also a head-scratcher. Only 223 million Americans were old enough to drink in 2009; divide 133 million into that number, and you see that a whopping 60% of adults, not “nearly one in two,” live with at least one chronic illness. Sloppy math and wording is common on the CDC site, as elsewhere it says that almost one in five youths has a BMI in the 95th percentile or above, which, of course, is mathematically impossible, as is the CDC’s calculation of our risk of death.

More importantly, how is the CDC defining “chronic disease” so broadly that so many of us have at least one? Is the CDC counting back pain? Tooth decay? Dandruff? Ring around the collar? “The facts,” as the CDC calls them, are only slightly less fatuous. For instance, the CDC counts “stroke” as a chronic disease. Although a stroke is likely preceded by chronic disease (such as severe hypertension or diabetes), it is hard to imagine a more acute medical event than one in which every minute of delay in treatment increases your odds of ending up like the Kardashians.

The CDC also counts obesity, which was only designated as a chronic disease by the American Medical Association in 2013 — and even then many people don’t accept that definition. Cancer also receives this designation, even though many diagnosed cancers are anything but chronic — they either go into remission or cause death.   “Chronic disease” implies a need for continuing therapy and vigilance. If cancer were a chronic disease, instead of sponsoring “races for the cure,” cancer advocacy groups would sponsor “races for the control and management.” And you never hear anybody say, “I have lung cancer, but my doctor says we’re staying on top of it.”

That brings us to the last bullet point. Convention typically attributes more than 80% of healthcare costs to fewer than 20% of people, meaning that costly ailments are concentrated in a relatively small group. The implication would be that, if you address that small group, your savings are disproportionate. Instead, the CDC’s data attributes 75% of costs to about 50% of the adult population, implying almost the exact opposite of the 80-20 rule: The cost of chronic disease is widely dispersed. Indeed, if you remove the rare diseases that afflict about 1% of the population but account for about 7-8% of cost, you come very close to parity between the proportion of the population with chronic disease and the proportion of total health spending attributable to chronic disease.

So what?

This urban legend based on the CDC’s call to action, appearing verbatim more than a million times on Google, is among the single biggest causes of uncontrolled healthcare spending…and is responsible for essentially the entire wellness industry.

In reality, if you strip away the expenses of those chronically ill people unrelated to their chronic condition (which are included in the CDC’s 75% statistic); prevention and management of those conditions (ditto); those aforementioned rare diseases; and unpredictable or uncontrollable exacerbations: That 75% crumbles to about 4% of expenses that fit the category of wellness-sensitive medical events. Achieving a 10% reduction in those categories — a feat rarely accomplished, which is why vendors never disclose this figure — would reduce overall spending by 0.4%, or about $25 a year per employee or spouse. Hence, few employers would ever bother with wellness.

Instead, the CDC’s  wellness legend, suggesting that 75% of costs can be attacked, encourages employers and health plans to focus on the opposite of what they should focus on. Penn State, citing this 75% statistic as justification for its controversial wellness program, provides a classic example of this wrongheaded focus, with unfortunate consequences for the university’ reputation and employee relations, with no offsetting financial benefit.

Typical of the wellness industry’s embrace of this wellness legend is Bravo Wellness — also the first wellness company to brag about generating savings by punishing employees. The company takes this fallacy a step further. It deftly substitutes the words “lifestyle-related and preventable” conditions for the CDC’s language “chronic conditions”; that implies that everyone with a chronic condition, even a congenital or unavoidable, rare condition, has only his lifestyle to blame. Vendors like Bravo encourage employers to get more employees to view themselves as chronically ill, or about to become chronically ill — and encourages them to access the system.

Encouraging overdiagnosisovertreatment and overprescribing isn’t just a bad idea on its own. It distracts employers from real issues such as provider pricing disparities, hospital safety, outliers (the small percentage of employees who really do account for half the cost (usually not because of a chronic ailment, though) and pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs), whose per-drug margins are about twice what they would be if anyone spent any time weed-whacking their obfuscations of rebates, implementation fees, etc. and simply negotiated the margin directly.

What to do next?

It seems like all our posts end the same way: Stop poking your employees with needles.

We’ve debunked wellness’s science and math, its outcomes, its philosophy … and now its epidemiological premise. Even as their credibility is shredded, most wellness industry players have steadfastly refused to defend themselves at all. Instead, they avoid all debates on this site, because, although many of the vendors and consultants appear to be incapable of critical thinking, they are smart enough to realize that facts are their worst nightmare.

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.

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.