Connecting the wellness dots

(Article previously appeared in Employee Benefits News)

As technology evolves, benefits professionals are increasingly inundated with data. In the case of wellness programs, measuring results with credible data is a laudable goal, but it’s an incredibly tricky endeavor.

The availability of wellness programs has increased in the past few years, with a majority of employers offering of some type of wellness program, according to the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2015 Employee Benefits Survey. In 2015, 70% of employers said they offer wellness programs, up from 62% last year.

Trying to consolidate wellness program data into something that has meaning to C-suite executives is worthwhile yet ambitious, says Cathy Kenworthy, president and CEO of Interactive Health, a workplace wellness vendor. “We have the blessing of a tremendous amount of data and we’re able to see what we believe are some enduring and substantial pieces of what we think preventive care is all about,” she says.

But connecting the dots between employee behavior change and lower health care costs remains elusive.

“I think that’s where the frustration has emerged, that being able to connect the dots between offering programs [and achieving results],” says Mike Thompson, a principal with PricewaterhouseCoopers. “Achieving sustainable behavior change and actually reducing health care costs … those dots have been hard to connect.”

To build a data-driven wellness program, employers should really start looking at foundational data and focus on just getting people engaged in something as simple as a personal health risk assessment, says Thompson.

“Kind of along the same lines of biometric testing, those all help you get a baseline,” he says. “They help you to personalize the messaging to help get people into the programs that they might need.”

Employers need to ask themselves three questions, he says:

  • What are we offering?
  • How many eligible participants are actually participating in the programs?
  • Are they completing the programs?

“Frankly, that’s typically where we stop at this point because we haven’t been able to connect the dots fully to where … anybody changed their behavior as a result of this, and have they been able to sustain those changes and behavior,” he says.

Some of the problems in current data interpretation are structural in the sense that part of the main focus of current wellness programs includes activity and nutrition, and those are largely targeted toward reversing the obesity epidemic. “In fact, few [wellness programs] have been able to change that trend materially,” says Thompson. “And secondly, if they do change that trend, it really doesn’t impact [employers’] health care costs for some years. It takes time.”

If short-term results are an employer’s wellness goal, then “look at things like stress, which has a much more immediate impact on a lot of different fronts than obesity,” he advises. “In fact, [stress] leads back to some of the same issues like staying active and eating right.”

Thinking smart

But for long-term results, not all the data employers are evaluating is top of the line, Interactive Health’s Kenworthy cautions. “I’d be enormously skeptical of general averages and things like that,” she says.

What these programs are built to do is improve the odds of success and improve the odds of how a population can get from point A to point B. “I think it’s incredibly important to look for data that’s authentic,” she says. “This is not pixie dust, this is not everybody is going to get better. This is trying to improve the odds that a portion of the population, more of the population … makes progress compared to those that don’t.”

Still, some experts find that even a population holding steady – people not getting worse – is an accomplishment.

Kenworthy also cautions employers to keep an eye out for common misconceptions. “I was in Colorado [recently] and everyone has this mindset that the state is young and healthy; however, the rate of obesity increase in Colorado is increasing faster than the rest of the country,” she says.

Wellness programs are an important piece of high deductible health plans, which continue to grow in popularity among employers, because they offer a “method by which consumers can be empowered,” says Kenworthy. Employees “can take action, and therefore are far more willing and effective participants in an HDHP because they’re knowledgeable.”

Employer experience

The Washington State Health Care Authority recently partnered with Limeade to implement its new wellness program, SmartHealth, to drive sustainable, healthy behavior change and positive well-being results among state employees.

Data from WSHCA’s major dental carrier pointed to low rates of members using the health care program’s annual preventive dental exam, which had no out-of-pocket cost for employees. As part of the new wellness program, WSHCA offered an incentive for employees to get their annual dental check-ups. The number of employees going for their dental checkups increased by 12,000 in the first six months of the wellness incentive being offered, says Scott Pritchard, benefits director at the WSHCA.

“We’re thinking it worked [and] preventive dental care really makes a difference in total costs,” he says.

Workplace wellness is “something that actually has a larger purpose … to impact the culture of an organization and the cost trajectory of an organization,” believes Kenworthy.

When employers think about wellness program data, they should start with the end in mind, she adds. “Start from the beginning by identifying what success is and how you [will] measure that. If you mean for a successful wellness challenge to be the number steps taken, great. If not, then why would you start with that as the measure you use?” she says.

Wellness programs aren’t for everyone, Thompson maintains.

Companies offering a wellness program because they feel they have to are probably not getting the most bang for their buck as those companies that are really committed.

“Those companies that put more muscle and emotion behind the programs they’re offering will see the payback,” he says, especially if those programs are holistic and fit with the company’s culture, as opposed to programs that simply offer a series of activities.