Here’s how one of Cincinnati’s largest employers helped improve the well-being of its workforce

Revamping a health and wellness program helped the third-largest employer in Cincinnati slash the medical claims of its workers by $5 million. What might be most surprising is that the people who needed prodding to improve their health work for Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

It’s a common misconception that somebody who works in the health care field would adhere to a healthy lifestyle, said Michael Stuart, director of benefits at the hospital based in Avondale.

“Health care workers tend to be the worst at taking care of themselves,” Stuart said. “Folks are so focused on the care of patients they sometimes neglect to address their own care.”

The hospital’s health insurance plan is self-funded, and medical claims among its nearly 15,000 employees were about 15 percent higher than the national average.

“Our overall health status was starting to decline,” Stuart said. “Chronic conditions were starting to be a larger proportion of costs. They were the usual obesity related illnesses: diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol. We needed to do something.

“What you want to prevent is long-term, costly events such as stroke and heart attack,” Stuart said.

So the hospital contracted with Limeade, which is based in Bellevue, Wash. The company helped retool the hospital’s MyHealthPath program, which is designed to motivate workers to lead healthier lives.

Activities include organized hikes at Mount Airy Forest, wall climbing at a University of Cincinnati recreation center and bicycling on the Loveland Bike Trail.

The program includes financial incentives and personal time off in exchange for engaging in such fitness activities. Points are awarded for various activities, with prices redeemed as goals are met.

Results can be logged on work computers, home computers or mobile devices synched with Fitbit activity trackers and apps such as MapMyRide, MapMyRun or MapMyWalk.

“We gave cash – up to $360 a year,” Stuart said. “They could earn personal time off of eight hours max, or a day of work. The personal time off has probably been the larger motivator.”

The program reduced health benefit costs by an average of $716 for participating employees. About 48 percent of the workforce has participated, or 7,600 employees. That means the savings totaled about $5.4 million, Stuart said.

“That is lowered costs and costs avoided,” Stuart said.

The return is greater than the cost of the program, especially considering the investment the hospital has in its medical and scientific staff, which includes top talent recruited from throughout the world, Stuart said.

The program resulted in greater participation in health coaching and in nutrition programs, as well as a 44 percent increase in preventive care visits.

The health engagement program was launched three years ago.

“It takes a solid three years,” Stuart said. “You’re not going to see anything overnight. It’s going to be a two-, three-, four-, five-year journey to get people engaged in the program.”

Hospital CEO Michael Fisher was a big supporter. It was his idea to start an annual Fitness on the Field event, which involves renting Paul Brown Stadium for an afternoon of activities such as flag football, yoga, Zumba, relay races and obstacle course runs.

Fisher also came up with the idea of free Wednesday evening walks through the nearby Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Gardens during warmer months, Stuart said. About 100 hospital employees participate in each walk, logging about three miles.

“We care about our employees, and we care about their families,” Fisher said. “We really want to make sure everyone is at their best. With our huge responsibility to give care to everyone and their families, we need to be at our best.”

As a result of the program, “people have made better food choices,” Fisher said. “People have been monitoring their blood pressure. People have been exercising. And as a result of that, they’re losing weight, they’re feeling better, they’ve got more energy.”

The hospital considered various vendors but selected Limeade, which “takes a holistic approach” that includes programs geared to community engagement and stress management in addition to working out and eating right, Stuart said.

“Given the nature of our work, stress is pretty rampant,” Stuart said.

So, “relaxation techniques were offered free of charge,” Stuart said. “Stress levels have been reduced. Our stress scores are declining, which is going to provide a higher quality of work and better engagement.

“It impacts us from the health and productivity standpoint,” Stuart said. “If we can’t have a solid workforce showing up every day, it can affect the health of patients. We need to have a healthy and engaged workforce.

“It was also the right thing to do – to help people become as healthy as possible,” he said. “We can’t be a community leader in health and not have healthy folks within out own walls.

“The program is open to all employees regardless of participation in our health insurance and regardless of hours worked,” Stuart said. “We purposely made access available to any employee who wishes to participate.”