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Wellness Vendors Keep Dreaming

Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said. “One can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Six impossible things before breakfast?  The wellness industry would just be getting warmed up by believing six impossible things before breakfast. Wellness vendors believe enough impossible things all day long to support an entire restaurant chain:

Consider the article in the current issue of BenefitsPro — forwarded to me by many members of the Welligentsia — titled: “Can the Wellness Industry Live Up to Its Promises?”  BenefitsPro interviewed US Corporate Wellness, Fitbit, Staywell and HERO. Each is a perennial candidate for the Deplorables Awards — except US Corporate Wellness, which already secured its place in the Deplorables Hall of Fame (see, Why Nobody Believes the Numbers) several years ago with these three paeans to the gods of impossibility.

In case you can’t read the key statistic — the first bullet point — it says: “Wellness program participants are 230% less likely to utilize EIB (extended illness benefit) than non-participants.” Here is some news for the Einsteins at US Corporate Wellness: You can’t be 230% less likely to do anything than anybody. For instance, even you, despite your best efforts in these three examples, can’t be 230% less likely to have a triple-digit IQ than the rest of us. Here’s a rule of math for you: a number can only be reduced by 100%. Rules of math tend to be strictly enforced, even in wellness. So the good news is, even in the worst-case scenario, you’re only 100% less likely to have a triple-digit IQ than the rest of us.

See also: 6 Pitfalls to Avoid With Core Systems  

And yet, if it were possible to be 230% dumber than the rest of us, you might be. For instance, US Corporate Wellness also brought us this estimate of the massive annual savings that can be obtained just by, Seinfeld-style, doing nothing:

Assume I spent about $3,500/year in healthcare 12 years ago, which is probably accurate. My modifiable risk factors were zero then and are still zero — no increase. So my healthcare spending should have fallen by $350/year for 12 years, or $4,200 since then. But that would be impossible, because I could only reduce my spending by $3,500. Do you see how that works now?

To his credit, US Corporate Wellness’s CEO, Brad Cooper, is quoted in this article as saying: “Unfortunately some in the industry have exaggerated the savings numbers.” You think?

I’m pretty sure this next one is impossible, too. I say “pretty sure” because I’ve never been able to quite decipher it, English being right up there with math as two subjects that apparently frustrated many a wellness vendor’s fifth grade teacher:

400% of what? Is US Corporate Wellness saying that, as compared with employees with a chronic disease like hypertension, employees who take their blood pressure pills are 400% more productive? Meaning that, if they controlled their blood pressure, waiters could serve 400% more tables, doctors could see 400% more patients, pilots could fly planes 400% faster? Teachers could teach 400% more kids? Customer service recordings could tell us our calls are 400% more important to them?

Or maybe wellness vendors could make 400% more impossible claims. That would explain this BenefitsPro article.

Fitbit

We have been completely unable to get Fitbit to speak, but BenefitsPro couldn’t get the company to shut up. Here is Fitbit’s Amy McDonough: “Measurement of a wellness program is an important part of the planning process.” Indeed it is! It’s vitally important to plan on how to fabricate impossible outcomes to measure, when in reality your product may even lead to weight gain. Here is one thing we know is impossible: You can’t achieve a 58% reduction in healthcare expenses through behavior change — especially if (as in the 133 patients the company tracked in one study) behavior didn’t actually change.

You can read about that gem, and others, in our recent Fitbit series here:

Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO) and Staywell

I’ll consider these two outfits together because people seem to bounce back and forth between them. Jessica Grossmeier is one such person. Jessica became the Neil Armstrong of impossible wellness outcomes way back in 2013. While at Staywell, she and her co-conspirators told British Petroleum they had saved about $17,000 per risk factor reduced. So, yes, according to Staywell, anyone who temporarily lost a little weight saved BP $17,000 — enough to clean up about 1,000 gallons of oil spilled from Deepwater Horizon.

See British Petroleum’s Wellness Program Is Spewing Invalidity for the details.

Leave aside both the obvious impossibility of this claim, and also the mathematical impossibility of this claim given that employers only actually spend about $6,000/person on healthcare. Jessica’s breakthrough was to also ignore the fact that this $17,000/risk factor savings figure exceeds by 100 times what her very own article claims in savings. Not by 100%. By 100 times.

Fast-forward to her new role at HERO. In this article, she says:

The conversation has thus shifted from a focus on ROI alone to a broader value proposition that includes both the tangible and intangible benefits of improved worker health and well-being.

Her memory may have failed her here, too, because HERO — in addition to admitting that wellness loses money (which explains its “shift” from the “focus on ROI alone”) — also listed the “broader value proposition” elements of their pry-poke-and-prod wellness programs. The problem is the elements of the broader value proposition of screening the stuffing out of employees aren’t “benefits.” They’re costs, and lots of them:

When she says: “The conversation has shifted from a focus on ROI alone,” she means: “We all got caught making up ROIs, so we need to make up a new metric.” RAND’s Soeren Mattke predicted this new spin three years ago, observing that every time the wellness industry makes claims and they get debunked, the industry simply makes a new set of claims, and then they get debunked, and then the whole process repeats with new claims, whack-a-mole fashion, ad infinitum. Here is his specific quote:

“The industry went in with promises of 3 to 1 and 6 to 1 based on health care savings alone – then research came out that said that’s not true. Then they said: “OK, we are cost neutral.” Now, research says maybe not even cost neutral. So now they say: “But it’s really about productivity, which we can’t really measure, but it’s an enormous return.”

Interactive Health

While other vendors, such as Wellsteps, harm plenty of employees, Interactive Health holds the distinction of being the only wellness vendor to actually harm me. I went to a screening of theirs. To increase my productivity, they stretched out my calves. Indeed, I could feel my productivity soaring — until one of them went into spasm. I doubt anyone has missed this story, but in case anyone has

Interactive Health also holds the distinction of being the first vendor (actually their consultant) to try to bribe me to stop pointing out how impossible their outcomes were. They were upset because I profiled them n the Wall Street Journal. The article is behind a paywall, so you probably can’t see it. Here’s the spoiler: The company allegedly saved a whopping $53,000 for every risk factor reduced. In your face, Staywell!

See also: What Is the Major Barrier to Change?  

Here is the BenefitsPro article’s quote from Interactive Health’s Jared Smith:

“There are many wellness vendors out there that claim to show ROI,” he says. “However, many of their models and methodologies are complex, based upon assumptions that do not provide sufficient quantitative evidence to substantiate their claims.”

You think?

Finally, here is a news flash for Interactive Health: Sitting is not the new smoking.  If anything is the “new smoking,” it’s opioid addiction, which has reached epidemic proportions in the workforce while being totally, utterly, completely, negligently, mind-blowingly, Sergeant Shultz-ily ignored by Interactive Health and the rest of the wellness industry.

There is nothing funny about opioid addiction and the wellness industry’s failure to address it, a topic for a future blog post. The only impossibility is that it is impossible to believe that an entire industry charged with what Jessica Grossmeier calls “worker health and well-being” could have allowed this to happen. Alas, happen it did.

And, as I write this post, breakfast hasn’t even been served yet.

Wellness War Is Over; Wellness Lost

What if we told you that “pry, poke, prod and punish” wellness programs are bad for morale, damage corporate reputations and cost more money than they save?

You’d say: “Al, you, Tom Emerick and more recently Vik Khanna have been telling us that for years.” You might add: “And while your opinions are usually well-reasoned and based on good data, we’d have to hear the true believers’ side of the story.”

But what if we told you: “That is the true believers’ side of the story”?

Yep, the wellness industry’s leading luminaries – 39 of them, representing 27 vendors and one consulting firm (Mercer) — have all gotten together under the aegis of both their trade associations – Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO) and Population Health Alliance (PHA) — and reached that “consensus.”

We don’t know if they simply didn’t read their own report before reaching this consensus, or whether they just all decided to tell the truth. Frankly, we’re fine either way. (This is also the second time in five months that a major wellness true believer admitted wellness doesn’t save money. The first time was a meta-analysis in the American Journal of Health Promotion that concluded that “randomized clinical trials show a negative ROI.” After we started quoting the analysis, the editor wrote a 2,000-word essay walking it back.)

Because our claim that we are laying out “the true believers’ side of the story” would otherwise require a certain suspension of disbelief, we are going to rely more heavily than usual on screenshots. We also recommend reading the report itself, or at a minimum our analyses of it. (Our analyses are going to be a 10-part cycle. Make sure to “follow” the website They Said What? to not miss a single episode.)

Page 10 of the report lists 12 elements of cost. The first element itself contains about 12 elements, making this a list of 23 elements of cost. (Add consulting fees, which were overlooked even though three Mercer consultants sat on the committee and even though page 14 calls for use of “consulting expertise,” and you get 24.)

You’ll see damage to employee morale and corporate reputations listed as “tangential costs.” But, as two people who run a company, we would call damage to those intangibles much more than tangential. Our company runs on morale. Pulling people away from their workstations to poke them with needles, weigh them, measure their waists and test to see if they are lying about their smoking habits couldn’t possibly be good for morale.

We are equally curious about the blithe dismissal of legal challenges as a tangential cost. No firm wants its name dragged across the wire services because it is being sued for its wellness program (just ask CVS and Honeywell). Getting dragged into the courts (and, hence, the media) for running a wellness program isn’t a tangential cost — and it’s an unforced error.

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On Page 15, as the report discusses how to measure the return on investment, the authors select only one of those 24 costs – vendor fees – as the basis for comparison. Omitting the other 23 costs, plus incentives, makes it easier to show an ROI. The fees are listed as “$1.50 per employee per month,” or $18 a year, even though the rule of thumb is that wellness programs cost many hundreds of dollars per employee per year.

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Further in, on page 23, the authors list the related savings: $0.99 per “potentially preventable hospitalization,” abbreviated as PPH. (The fact that we have to do the math on our own by comparing figures across pages suggests this admission of losses was a gaffe rather than deliberate honesty.)

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The savings figures are based on reductions in event rates that (1) are about twice what typically gets achieved; and (2) somehow overlook the natural decline of 3% to 5% a year in cardiac events even without a wellness program.

Even without adjusting for those two mistakes, savings fall $0.51 PMPM short of vendors fees alone.

And losing $0.51 per employee per month is the best-case scenario. The “savings” includes benefits from disease management (which is not covered by the $1.50 PMPM in vendors fees), and omits the offsetting costs of all the extra doctor visits that come from overdiagnosis and overtreatment.

So, here are the two conclusions:

  • According to proponents’ own consensus, wellness loses money.
  • Even worse, their savings are wildly overstated (yes, according to government data), and their costs, by their own admission on page 10, are wildly understated.

Don’t take our word for either of these. Write to us, and we will send you an ROI spreadsheet that you can use to do your own calculations.

One way or the other, what RAND’s Soeren Mattke called the wellness wars are over. Wellness has surrendered.

How Will the Wellness Industry Respond?

HERO and its assembled luminaries will probably ignore this gaffe, to prevent a news cycle that their customers might notice. However, if the problem gets covered broadly, they will respond. This was their modus operandi the last time they got “outed.” We had shown them in 2011 that one of their key slides, for which they even gave themselves an award, was made up. We presented our proof many times and even put it in both our books…but it wasn’t until Health Affairs shined a bright light on it that they acknowledged wrongdoing. They said that the slide “was unfortunately mislabeled” by an as-yet-unidentified culprit, but that no one noticed for four years. (Rather than relabeling the slide in a “more fortunate” way, they took the slide off the site.)

To clarify that their position is indefensible, we have offered a reward of $1 milliion for them to simply convince a panel of Harvard mathematicians that they have any idea what they are talking about beyond the fact of the gaffe itself.  Their refusal to claim this reward speaks volumes.

Implications for Brokers

The implications for brokers are profound. First, stop placing wellness programs — or at a minimum get a “release” from your clients saying that they’ve read this article but want to proceed anyway. The disclosure by the wellness industry’s own trade association that wellness loses money increases your liability because you “knew or should have known” that losses were to be expected. Second, you can probably offer your client the chance to abrogate vendor contracts, especially if the vendor was one of the 27 that reached this “consensus.” That might reduce your revenue in the short term but will cement your relationship. And you want your clients to find out about wellness’ problems from you, not from the media.

But whatever else you do, follow future installments here on Insurance Thought Leadership as we plow through this report and deconstruct more of not just their crowd-sourced math but also of their crowd-sourced alternative to reality, in which prying into employees’ personal lives, poking them with needles in blatant disregard for government guidelines, prodding them to get worthless checkups and punishing them when they don’t is all somehow going to save employers millions of dollars.

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.

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.