Top wellness award goes to workplace where many health measures got worse
By Sharon Begley
STAT, September 27, 2016
When Idaho’s Boise School District receives the workplace wellness industry’s highest award Wednesday at a celebration in Atlanta, it is expected to be applauded for helping its 3,000-plus employees and their families improve their health and reduce their risk of illness.
It is “an exemplary program,” said Dr. James Fries, an emeritus professor of medicine at Stanford University and member of The Health Project, an industry-sponsored group that makes the annual award. Program participants, he said in an announcement this month, “showed improvements in health behavior,” helping Boise save money on medical costs.
Data collected by the company that sold Boise the wellness program and trumpeted the “Koop Award,” however, cast doubt on that claim. More key measures of health deteriorated than improved. Self-reported quality of health got worse. And health care costs jumped around in a way that suggests any changes were due at least in part to random fluctuations and possibly employee turnover, not any benefits of the wellness program.
This would not be the first time the Koop Award, named for the late US Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop, stirred controversy. Employees in the wellness program that won in 2015, for instance, collectively achieved a lower reduction in smoking than the national average. More gained weight than lost, more raised their total cholesterol level than lowered it, and more had higher blood glucose levels after participating in the wellness program than before.
Such cases reinforce a growing recognition among experts that wellness programs — which constitute an $8 billion a year industry — “don’t lead to any visible results,” Stanford’s Emma Seppala recently wrote in Harvard Business Review. “At best, these initiatives are nothing more than lip service or PR. But at worst, they actually cause more stress.”
By Don McCanne, M.D.
We still hear that employers are adopting wellness programs in order to reduce the future costs of their health benefit programs by making their employees healthier. There could be no better evidence that these programs do not work than the fact that the top award for a workplace wellness program went to an employer whose employees’ health deteriorated.
If employers really want to do something about controlling health care costs, they should get on the single payer bandwagon. Not only would that eliminate the hassle and expense of administering their health benefit programs, all of their employees would have health care automatically, and future increases in health care costs would be reduced to sustainable levels.
Any employers reading this who are not yet convinced about single payer would benefit by watching a movie developed by and for the business community, “FIX IT – Healthcare at The Tipping Point.”