Tag Archives: Surviving Workplace Wellness

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.

The Wellness Industry Pleads the Fifth

The wellness industry’s latest string of stumbles and misdeeds are on the verge of overwhelming the cloud’s capacity to keep track of them.

First, as readers of my column may recall, is the C. Everett Koop Award Committee’s refusal to rescind Health Fitness Corp.’s (HFC’s) award even after HFC admitted having lied about saving the lives of 514 cancer victims. (As luck would have it, the “victims” never had cancer in the first place.) Curiously, HFC’s customers have won an amazing number of these Koop awards, which are given for “population health promotion and improvement programs.” Why so many, you might ask? Is HFC that good? Well, HFC is not just a winner of the Koop Award. HFC is also a major sponsor. Perhaps it was an oversight that HFC omitted this detail from its announcement that both Koop Awards were won by its customers for 2012.

Second, the American Heart Association (AHA) recently announced its guidelines for workplace screenings. They call for much more screening than the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force does. As it happens, the AHA guidelines were co-written by a senior executive from Staywell, a screening vendor. Not just any vendor, but one that had already been caught making up outcomes.

Third, although the American Journal of Health Promotion published a meta-analysis that showed a degree of integrity rare for the wellness industry, it then hedged the conclusion. The analysis showed that high-quality studies on wellness outcomes demonstrated “a negative ROI in randomly controlled trials.” But the journal then added that invalid studies (generally comparing active, motivated participants to non-motivated non-participants) showed a positive return. The journal said that if you averaged the results of the invalid and the valid studies you got an ROI greater than break-even. However, the averaging logic leading to that conclusion is a bit like “averaging” Ptolemy and Copernicus to conclude that the earth revolves halfway around the sun.

How does the wellness industry respond to criticisms like these three? It doesn’t. The industry basically pleads the Fifth.

The industry knows better than to draw attention to itself when it doesn’t control the agenda. The players know a response creates a news cycle, which they will lose — and that absent a news cycle no one other than people like you are going to read my columns and notice these misdeeds.

One co-author of the AHA guidelines wrote to my Surviving Workplace Wellness co-author, Vik Khanna, and said the AHA would respond to our “accusation” but apparently thought better of it when the lay media didn’t pick up the original story.  (As a sidebar, I replied that saying a screening vendor was writing the screening policy was an “observation,” not an “accusation,” and recommended the editors check www.dictionary.com to see the difference.)

Similarly, in the past, I have made accusations and observations about the wellness industry both in this column and on the Health Care Blog…and gotten no response. So to make things extra easy for these folks, I dispensed with statements that needed to be rebutted. Instead, I asked some simple questions. I said I would publish companies’ responses, which would create a great marketing opportunity for them…if, indeed, their responses appealed to readers.

I posted the questions on a new website called www.theysaidwhat.net.  I got only one response, from the Vitality Group. The other wellness companies allowed the questions to stand on their own, on that site.

To ferret out responses, I then did something that has probably never been done before: I offered wellness companies a bribe…to tell the truth. I said I’d pay them $1,000 to simply answer the questions I posted about their public materials, which would take about 15 minutes.( If someone makes me that offer, I ask, “Where do I sign?” but I’m not a wellness vendor.)

Here’s how easy the questions are: Recall from a previous ITL posting that Wellsteps has an ROI model on its website that says it saves $1,358.85 per employee, adjusted for inflation, by 2019 no matter what you input into the model as assumptions for obesity, smoking and spending on healthcare. The company claims this $1,358.85 savings is based on “every ROI study ever published.” Compiling all those citations would require time, so I merely asked the company to name one little ROI study that supports this $1,358.85 figure. Silence.

I asked similar questions (which you can view on the click-throughs) to Aetna, Castlight, Cigna, Healthstat, Keas (which wins style points for the most creative way to misreport survey data), Pharos, Propeller Health, ShapeUp, US Corporate Wellness and Wellnet, as well as their enablers and validators, Mercer and Milliman. Propeller and Healthstat responded — but didn’t actually answer the questions. Healthstat seems to say that rules of real math don’t apply to it because it prefers its own rules of math. Propeller – having released the completely mystifying interim results of a study long before it was completed – said it looks forward to the study’s completion and didn’t even acknowledge that questions were asked.

In all fairness, one medical home vendor sent a response expressing a seemingly genuine desire to understand or clarify issues with its outcomes figures and to possibly improve their validity (if, indeed, they are invalid). As a result, I am not adding the vendor to this site; the idea is not to highlight honest and well-intentioned vendors. (The company would like its name undisclosed for now, but if anyone wants to contact it, just send me an email, and I will pass it along to the company for response.)

Likewise, there are good guys – Towers Watson and Redbrick, despite their high profiles, managed to stay off the list by keeping their hands clean (or at least washing them right before inspection). Allone, owned by Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania, even had its outcomes validated and indemnified. I will announce more validated and indemnified vendors in a followup posting.

As for the others, well, I am not saying that their historic and continuing strategy of pleading the Fifth when asked to explain themselves means that they know their statements are wrong. Nor am I saying that they are liars, idiots or anything of the sort. Something like that would be an “accusation.” Instead, I am merely making an “observation.”

It isn’t even my observation. It is credited to Confucius:  “A man who makes a mistake and does not correct it, is committing another mistake.”