Wellness is back in the news these days. The National Bureau of Economic Research’s controlled trial invalidating a Harvard study that has been used to claim major benefits from wellness programs and the surprise decision in the AARP v. EEOC case disallowing large financial inducements for “voluntary” programs both received national attention. Further, WillisTowersWatson’s quiet revelation that most employees really dislike wellness programs marks the first time anyone in the industry has ever acknowledged that, absent bribes and fines, few employees would submit to their HR people playing doctor.
By way of background, all these recent “findings” – the lack of savings from wellness programs, need for inducements, and the employee resentment – were quite clear to me in my roles at British Petroleum, Burger King and Walmart over three decades.
Along with Al Lewis, I brought this experience (and many others, such as the much more positive and increasingly popular domestic medical travel program) to public view in our book “Cracking Health Costs,” which continues to sell – and, more importantly, continues to resonate — five years after publication.
Largely because of the news hooks above, there have lately been a flurry of references to a comprehensive, scholarly article by that very same Al Lewis. Al, of course, is well-known for poking the wellness beast with humor, screenshots and eloquence on www.theysaidwhat.com. This article is different. Not as much fun perhaps, but “The Outcomes, Economics and Ethics of the Workplace Wellness Industry” captures all my doubts and criticisms, and much more besides.
Al often says that the wellness industry’s worst nightmare is being quoted verbatim. In this article, he has collected a mountain of self-incriminating verbatim quotes and claims, sourced with roughly 400 linked footnotes, all leading to the inexorable conclusion that, to be blunt, the wellness empire has no clothes. Al presents convincing evidence that what he calls “pry, poke and prod” programs really can actually harm employees. Further, the way wellness vendors typically calculate costs and benefits results in false ROI numbers.
This exposé, though generally dry and straight, is not without flashes of Al’s understated humor, albeit delivered in the context of the leading law-medicine journal. In one passage, Ron Goetzel is forced to spin the gaffe that his wellness advocacy group, HERO, accidentally published a chapter in their Outcomes Guide showing that wellness loses money. Ron is sourced as saying:
HERO’s board claims that, in creating the guide, they “fabricated” these numbers for the purpose of providing an example. Publicly, Goetzel, a member of HERO’s board, stated that “[t]hose numbers are wildly off . . . every number in that chapter has nothing to do with reality.”
Al’s next paragraph:
The chapter’s author, however, disputes the HERO board’s and Goetzel’s claim that the numbers were fabricated. He argues that, quite the contrary, his data is real and several board members, including Goetzel, reviewed it prior to publication. Reconciling the example’s data with the HCUP database, which shows almost total consistency between the HERO sample and the population, provides further evidence for the author’s claim that the data is not “wildly off” but rather real, and a representative sample of the privately insured American workforce.
Al challenges the credibility of HERO’s board simply by quoting both a board member and the chapter author. After all, when your go-to defense is pretending to have fabricated your own numbers, you lose. And when Al Lewis is on the other end, you lose big.
This article, though not a quick read, is a necessary one for all policymakers, pundits and especially employers as they decide how to react both to the new findings by NBER and Willis – which turn out not to be new at all –and how to prepare for 2019.
Perhaps the best preparation is to do something completely different – as my book says, perhaps try doing wellness for employees instead of to them. “Pry, poke and prod” programs, especially the coercive ones, may finally meet the demise that I’ve been predicting for about 15 years now.
Published in the Case Western Reserve Health Matrix: Journal Law Medicine
It’s time for the 2017 Deplorables Awards, lovingly bestowed on those vendors who do the best job making other vendors look good.
The good news is that you don’t have to actually win the Deplorables Award to sue me. Runners-up are eligible, too. Here is my address for hand-service delivery most of the year:
890 Winter Street #208, Waltham MA 02451
In case you decide to sue me between June 22 and Aug. 8, use:
8 Paddock Circle, Chilmark, MA 02535
And don’t leave out my attorney:
Josh Gardner, GARDNER & ROSENBERG P.C., 33 Mount Vernon St., Boston, MA 02108
I don’t know how much more I can do for you, other than lick the envelope. So go for it. Don’t make me beg.
But, remember, unlike with your usual business model, in court you are required to actually tell the truth (I would be happy to explain to you how that works), meaning there is no chance of your winning — or likely even avoiding summary judgment, because none of the evidence is in dispute. It’s all your own writings. Oh, and I do my own cross, which means you won’t be able to find an expert witness. Anyone who knows enough about wellness to be an expert witness also knows enough about wellness to know that attempting to defend you would be a humiliating, on-the-record experience.
And there is always the chance that some annoying jerk might blog about it…
The 2017 Runners-Up
Springbuk and Fitbit
As many of you recall, earlier in the year we analyzed the study done by Springbuk that was secretly financed by Fitbit. Or maybe I need new glasses, because I just couldn’t find the disclosure in the Springbuk report that this paean to Fitbit was financed by Fitbit, much as Nero used to have the judges award him Olympic medals.
Coincidentally, the study showed Fitbit saving gobs of money because employees taking more than 100 steps a day spend less money than those taking fewer. However, a simple tally of one’s own footsteps shows that it is impossible not to take 100 steps a day unless you are both:
in a hospital bed; and also
This 100 steps-a-day threshold was repeated many times in the study, with no explanation of how that number came to be. However, it turns out we owe these two outfits an apology. Fitbit and Springbuk have told a number of people privately (not publicly, to avoid an embarrassing news cycle) that they didn’t reallymean to say that 100 steps a day constituted activity. They meant to say that taking 100 steps a day implied you had your Fitbit on. My apologies for failing to read their minds that their conclusions were based on reading people’s minds to determine whether they wore the Fitbit deliberately, or simply forgot/remembered/cared to put their Fitbit on.
“The materials in this document represent the opinion of the authors and not representative of the views of Springbuk, Inc. Springbuk does not certify the information, nor does it guarantee the accuracy and completeness of such information.”
“This demonstration of impact achieved by integrating Fitbit technology into an employee wellness program reinforces our belief in the power of health data and measurement in demonstrating ROI,” said Rod Reasen, co-founder and CEO of Springbuk.
HERO, of course, also earns a runner-up award. 2017 will be remembered as the year they finally came to grips with the realization that a business model based on fabricating outcomes requires that perpetrators possess that critical third IQ digit. Without that extra “1”, an organization trafficking in math that can at best be considered fuzzy is going to be outed.
This year’s set of lies? By way of background, their 2016 poison-pen letter insisted they had fabricated that data set showing that wellness loses money without disclosing that it was fabricated — and also never reviewed their fabricated data before publication. Early in the year, I had the insight that, wow, this “fabricated” chapter in their guidebook is so much better than the other chapters that something is amiss. No one at HERO can analyze data competently…and yet, here it was, a competent data analysis.
I did something I had never thought to do before, which was look up the actual author of that chapter. It was Iver Juster, MD. He was a great analyst even before he read all my books, took all my courses and achieved all my certifications in Critical Outcomes Report Analysis.
Whereas Paul Terry and Ron Goetzel had insisted that Iver fabricated the data, Iver said that, of course he didn’t — whatever made me think that? (“If it wasn’t real, I would have disclosed that,” he observed. Of course, he would have. Iver has tremendous integrity.)
The board discussed and reviewed his chapter at length and made helpful suggestions, for which he was quite grateful. This review process required “countless hours,” just as the HERO document says:
Perhaps as an encore, WCS, Dr. Oz and the National Business Group on Health could team up to offer a chocolate-eating contest.
I looked into this outfit to see where they get their ideas. The CEO previously ran something called the Washington Document Service. That qualifies her to run a wellness company. As Star Wellness says, to run a wellness company successfully, your background needs to be in sales, or “municipality administration.” After all, what is more central to administering a municipality than documents?
So if your kids ever want you to teach them how to ride a bike, say: “It’s not really about riding a bike. It’s about helping you apply the secrets of people who have ridden bikes.”
And what secrets are we talking about? What person who has lost weight doesn’t brag to everyone or even write a book? If there is a secret to weight loss, like eating chocolate, Wellsteps owes it to the country to tell them. Don’t make us beg.
Sounds like in 2018 the logical winners would be Philip Morris, or maybe the Asbestos Corporation of America.
Veering briefly into the public sector, kudos to Rep. Virginia Foxx, (R-NC5) for introducing the Required Employee DNA Disclosure Act. Even HERO thought it was a dumb idea…and their threshold for thinking something that increases wellness industry revenue is a dumb idea is quite high, having all rallied behind the Johnson & Johnson fat tax, in which companies would be required to disclose the weight of their employees.
There is a saying: “In wellness, you don’t have to challenge the data to invalidate it. You merely have to read the data. It will invalidate itself.” Indeed, if there is one thing you can take to the bank in this field, it’s that articles intending to prove that wellness works inevitably prove the opposite. Another saying is that the biggest nightmares of leading wellness promoter Ron Goetzel and his friends (the Health Enhancement Research Organization, which is the industry trade association) are, in no particular order:
their own words.
And Mr. Goetzel, writing in this month’sHealth Affairs [behind a paywall], is Exhibit A in support of the paragraph above. To summarize the implication of this article, you, as brokers, need to take ROI off the table as an attribute of wellness. Instead, you’ll need to find wellness vendors who are willing to screen most employees much less often than once a year, just as government guidelines recommend.
No wellness vendor ever got rich by screening according to guidelines. As a result, willing vendors are hard to find. (Examples include It Starts with Me and Sterling Wellness, as well as my own company, Quizzify, whose outcomes don’t rely on screening.) The lower screening frequencies also mean lower commissions. Weighed against that is the advantage of doing the right thing for your customer and their employees.
The subject of Mr. Goetzel’s article was specifically employer cardiac spending vs. cardiac risks in an employer population. He found that cardiac risks correlated the “wrong” way with cardiac spending, meaning that companies with healthier employees somehow incurred more cardiac-related spending.
But that correlation — and it was only a correlation, not cause-and-effect — by itself didn’t cause the death of wellness ROI, though it didn’t help. As is typical in wellness, and as was mentioned in the first paragraph, the proximate cause of the death of wellness ROI was that this breathlessly pro-wellness author accidentally provided the data proves that wellness loses money.
Specifically, they didn’t separate the average employer cardiac claims spending of $329 per employee per year (PEPY) into “bad” claims (spending on events like heart attacks), vs. “good” claims (spending on preventive interventions to avoid heart attacks).
How big a rookie mistake is combining these two opposite claims tallies — prevention expense and event expense — and calling it “average payment for all cardiac claims”? It would be like saying the average human is a hermaphrodite.
Splitting that average into its two opposite components would have revealed that spending on actual avoidable events is much lower than spending on wellness programs implemented to avoid those events. That, of course, is exactly the right answer, as we showed 15 months ago.
Let’s do the math
How much do employers spend on “bad claims” like heart attacks? Here is the number of heart attacks, spelled out so that people can replicate this analysis using the official government database, tallying all the admissions for heart attack-related DRGs:
DRG 280 — 12,825
DRG 281 — 15,404
DRG 282 — 18,365
DRG 283 — 1,800
DRG 284 — 275
DRG 285 — 160
This totals to 48,829. Roughly 100,000,000 adults are insured through their employers. That means that about 1 in 2000 employees or spouses will have a heart attack in any given year. Let’s double that to generously account for any other cardiac events that could be prevented through screening employees, to 1 in 1000.
Now let’s equally generously assume a whopping cost of $50,000 per heart attack. So of the $329 PEPY that Ron calculated for prevention and events combined, only $50 ($50,000 per event and 1 in 1000 working people suffering one) is spent on events. The rest is spent on prevention and management expense, like putting people on statins, diuretics etc., doctor visits, lab tests etc.—things done specifically to avoid these events.
These latter expenses are not avoidable. Nor are they even reducible through wellness. Just the opposite– wellness vendors are always trying to close “gaps in care” by sending people to the doctor to get more of these interventions.
According to Mr. Goetzel’s own data, a wellness program — health risk assessments, screening, portals etc. — costs about $150 PEPY. An industry that spends that much to get what Mr. Goetzel himself states is at best a 2% reduction in a $50 PEPY expense can’t save money. This mathematical fact explains the industry’s constant need to lie about savings (and about me).
Anyone care to claim my $2 million reward for showing wellness saves money? I didn’t think so…
Why? Because the well-financed, well-organized cabal behind this fat tax proposal include corporate names like Johnson & Johnson, PepsiCo, Humana, Merck, Novo-Nordisk and Unilever. The leader of this group is a South African insurer called Discovery Health.
If you guessed that any critique written by me would also implicate Ron Goetzel, you would be correct. Despite having now himself admitted that most wellness programs fail, he is the one justifying this entire scheme by claiming that wellness programs increase stock prices — even though they don’t. We’ve already offered a completely transparent analysis to the contrary.
He also made a rookie mistake in his own analysis. The stock prices of companies in his study diverged greatly in both directions from the averages, and he didn’t rebalance existing holdings annually. It’s simple compounding arithmetic. Suppose the stock market rises X% a year. If every stock in your portfolio increases at that rate, you’ll match the averages. However, if half your stocks increase 2X% a year while the other half don’t appreciate at all, and you don’t rebalance, you’ll beat the averages. Simply by doing nothing.
Goetzel’s study appeared right before the fat tax proposal was floated at Davos. No coincidence here — Discovery Health (the sponsor of the Vitality Institute) cites the study as a basis for wanting shareholders to “pressure” companies into disclosing the number of fat employees they have. And the more fat employees a company has, the more shareholders will insist on wellness programs, thanks to this study. Johnson & Johnson and Discovery both sell wellness programs, while Merck and Novo-Nordisk sell drugs for various wellness-related conditions.
As this blog noted last week, even wellness promoters – including Goetzel – say it loses money.
Most importantly, though – and you don’t need Harvard to learn this – it’s just not nice to stigmatize employees for their weight or other shortcomings unrelated to job performance. Basic human decency should have been taught to this cabal a long time ago.
We’ve pointed out many times in ITL that these wellness people were absent the day the fifth-grade teacher covered arithmetic. This proposal suggests that they were also absent the day the kindergarten teacher taught manners.
How many times do wellness promoters have to admit or prove that wellness doesn’t work before everyone finally believes them?
Whether one measures clinical outcomes/effectiveness, savings or productivity, the figures provided by the most vocal wellness promoters and the most “successful” wellness programs yield the same answer: Wellness doesn’t work.
In that estimate, which works out to a failure rate well north of 90%, he is joined by Michael O’Donnell, editor of the industry trade journal, the American Journal of Health Promotion (AJHP). O’Donnell says that as many as 95% of programs fail. (For the record, I have no beef with him, because he once willingly admitted that I am “not an idiot.”)
The best example of this Goetzel-O’Donnell consensus? McKesson, the 2015 Koop Award winner. McKesson’s own data –even when scrubbed of those pesky non-participants and dropouts who are too embarrassed to allow themselves to be weighed in – shows an increase in body mass and cholesterol:
Vitality Group, which contributed to this McKesson award-winning result as a vendor, wants your company to publicly disclose how many fat employees you have. Why? So that you are “pressured” (their word) into hiring a wellness vendor like Vitality. Yet Vitality admits it can’t get its own employees to lose weight.
McKesson and Vitality continue a hallowed tradition among Koop Award-winning programs of employees not losing noticeable weight. For instance, at Pfizer, the 2010 award-winner, employees who opened their weight-loss email lost all of three ounces:
Maybe it’s unfair to pick programs based on winning awards. Awards or not, those programs could have cut corners. Perhaps to find an exception to the rule that wellness can’t improve outcomes, we should look to the most expensive program, Aetna’s. Unfortunately, even Aetna registered only the slightest improvement in health indicators, throwing away $500/employee in the process. Why that much? Aetna decided to collect employee DNA to predict diabetes, even though reputable scientists have never posited that DNA can predict diabetes.
So even award winners, wellness vendors themselves and gold-plated programs can’t move the outcomes needle in a meaningful way, if at all. Bottom line: It looks like we finally have both consensus on the futility of wellness, and data to support the wellness industry admission that way north of 90% of programs do indeed fail to generate outcomes.
Because wellness promoters now say most programs fail, it is no surprise they also say most programs lose money. Once again, this isn’t us talking. The industry’s own guidebook – written by Goetzel and O’Donnell and dozens of other industry leaders — shows wellness loses money. We have posted that observation on ITL before, and no one objected.
However, very recently, the sponsors of this guidebook (the Health Enhancement Research Organization, or HERO) did finally take issue with our quoting statistics from their own guidebook. They pointed out — quite accurately — that their money-losing example was hypothetical. It did not involve numbers they would approve of, despite having published them. (At least, we think this is what HERO said. One of their board members has learned that they have sent a letter to members of the lay media, telling them not to publish our postings. We are told HERO’s objection centers on our quoting their report.)
To avoid a lawsuit for quoting figures they prefer us not to quote, we substituted their own real figures for their own hypothetical figures — and using real figures from Goetzel’s company, Truven Health Analytics, multiplied the losses.
This very same downloadable guidebook notes that these losses, as great as they are, actually exclude at least nine other sources of administrative costs–like internal costs, impact on morale, lost work time for screenings, etc. (Page 10). Truven also excludes a large number of medical costs (Page. 22):
One could only assume that including all these administrative and medical losses in the calculation would increase the total loss.
Lest readers think that this consensus guidebook is an anomaly, HERO is joined in its conclusion that wellness loses money by AJHP. AJHP published a meta-analysis showing a negative ROI from high-quality studies.
RAND’s Soeren Mattke said it best:
“The industry went in with promises of 3-to-1 and 6-to-1 ROIs based on healthcare savings alone. Then research came out that said that’s not true. They said, ‘Fine, we are cost-neutral.’ Now research says: ‘Maybe not even cost-neutral.’ So they say: ‘It’s really about productivity, which we can’t really measure, but it’s an enormous return.'”
The AJHP stepped up to make Dr. Mattke appear prescient. After finding no ROI in high-quality studies, proponents decided to dispense with ROI altogether. “Who cares about ROI anyway?” were O’Donnell’s exact words.
Because health dollars couldn’t be saved, O’Donnell tried to estimate productivity impact. But honesty compelled him to admit that workers would need to devote about 4% of their time to working out to be 1% more productive on the job. Using his own time-and-motion figures, and adding in program costs, his math creates a loss exceeding $5,200/employee/year.
I would have to agree with O’Donnell, based on my experience in the 1990s as the CEO of a NASDAQ company. Ours was a call center company, which meant someone had to answer the phones. If I had let employees go to the gym instead of working, I would have had to pay other employees to cover for them. Our productivity would have taken a huge hit, even if the workouts bulked up employees’ biceps to the point where they could pick up the phone 1% faster.
Where Does This Leave Us?
Despite our using their own figures, wellness promoters may object to this analysis, saying they didn’t really intend for these conclusions to be reached. Intended or not, these are the conclusions from their figures, and theirs largely agree with ours, expressed in many previous blog posts on ITL. And, of course, our website, www.theysaidwhat.net, is devoted to exposing vendor lies. The bottom line is, no matter whose “side” you are on, the answer is the same. Assuming you look at promoters’ actual data or statements instead of listening to the spin, the conclusion is the same: Conventional wellness doesn’t work.