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Wellness Not Just For Patients

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media, September 2, 2008

It may seem obvious. Given the nature of the work, the healthcare industry and healthcare professionals should be on the vanguard of employer-sponsored wellness initiatives like health screenings and risk assessments, smoking cessation and weight loss programs, and disease management.

Nope, says Jack Bastable, national practice leader for health and productivity management at Cleveland-based CBIZ Benefits & Insurance.

In fact, Bastable says, the healthcare industry is trailing corporate America on most wellness trends. "Hospital systems are generally less healthy than corporate environments," he says. "It's only been within the last five-to-seven years or so that hospitals have banned smoking. That was something they did way, long before in the corporate world."

Bastable says the problem is particularly acute with nurses, who "have in their DNA the mentality that they are caregivers, except for themselves. They will go for a long shift and hardly eat, and then they're starving they'll eat a lot of junk food." But there is a change under way. More and more health systems are implementing wellness programs for their employees and Bastable says there are a few common strategies that can apply to just about every hospital.

First, figure out what you want to achieve. Human resources folks, C-Suiters, and other administrators should join with physicians, nurses, and other health experts within the hospital to determine what to build.

That initial process also includes health screenings and risk assessments for employees. "You don't just start offering programs and hope the culture takes hold. The first step is to identify the health needs and risks of the population," Bastable says. How do you get employees to buy into the idea? Make it worth their while. Create financial incentives, such as discounting health insurance premiums for employees who undergo health screenings and—when applicable—who follow programs to manage their chronic diseases. "Employees need to know ‘if I do my screenings I will pay less on health insurance than if I don't,'" Bastable says. "That is a key element in all of these programs—building the incentives and engagement so they will participate."

It's a cost-effective strategy that can be fashioned at little or no cost to employers. "You don't necessarily pay employees more or give them a discount on a premium. Establish the premium, tell them what it costs, and tell them that if you choose not to participate you are going to have to contribute more," Bastable says. "The message is ‘we want you to participate in managing your health. If you choose not to, you will be penalized.'"

And what is the incentive for your healthcare system to implement wellness programs for their employees? If the health and wellbeing of your employees isn't enough of a motivator, Bastable says, the health insurance industry will eventually make such programs mandatory. So, you might as well get ahead of the curve.

"It's not a question of if you should you be doing it," he says. "It's the question of what are the best strategies to get people engaged and understand the financial connection to staying healthy."


John Commins is the human resources and community and rural hospitals editor with HealthLeaders Media. He can be reached at jcommins@healthleadersmedia.com.
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