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The Million-Dollar Workplace Wellness Heart Attack Screen

April 29th, 2013

Three years after wellness was hailed as perhaps the only truly bipartisan component of the Affordable Care Act, both lay and trade commentators have begun observing that the assumptions behind it were incorrect while downsides were overlooked. As a predictable result, savings have proven elusive even in seemingly ideal baseline circumstances for health improvement. For example, a wellness program at BJC HealthCare in St. Louis reduced hospitalizations for wellness-sensitive medical events, but the savings were limited (and offset by other cost increases) by the fact that older employees there on average were hospitalized for a wellness-sensitive medical event only once every 12 years to begin with. (See Note 1.)

Consistent with that finding, commentators (including the authors) have noted that every vendor claiming savings from what the Affordable Care Act (ACA) terms “health contingent” wellness programs has employed obviously flawed study design (like comparing the results from active motivated participants to non-motivated non-participants, and crediting the program, rather than the obvious difference in motivation, for the savings) and/or has simply made up or misinterpreted their own outcomes .

One reason for the absence of savings is that the biometric screenings themselves on which wellness economics are based cost far more money than they can conceivably save, due to both the likelihood of overdiagnosis and the marginal benefit of taking frequent measurements in generally healthy adults. Routine screening lacks an evidence basis and is eschewed by the medical community. For example, the federal government recommends lipid screening only once every five years.

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Is It Time To Re-Examine Workplace Wellness ‘Get Well Quick’ Schemes?

January 16th, 2013

Editor’s note: Readers interested in sources listed as available from authors, or in other information relating to this post, may contact Al Lewis at or Vik Khanna at

Virtually unheard of thirty years ago, workplace wellness is now embedded in large self-insured companies. These firms pay their workers an average of $460/year to participate in worksite wellness programs. Further, wellness is deeply enough engrained in the public policy consciousness to have earned a prominent place in the Affordable Care Act, which allows large employers to tie a significant percentage of health spending to employee health behavior and provides direct subsidies for small businesses to undertake these workplace wellness programs.

Yet the implausible, disproven, and often mathematically impossible claims of success underlying the “get well quick” programs promoted by the wellness industry raise many questions about the wisdom of these decisions and policies. In this post, we lay out the evidence demonstrating that the industry consistently mis-measures and overstates the direct healthcare cost savings. We suggest several strategies to prevent this and to re-allocate wellness dollars from “get well quick” schemes to the much more challenging, but ultimately more rewarding, task of truly creating a culture of wellness, a workplace that can attract and retain healthier, presumably more productive, people than competitors do. There is no guarantee that strategy would work and no easy way to implement it, but clearly the easy approach isn’t working.

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