Hospitals, Healthcare Sector 'Walk The Talk' With Wellness Programs

John Commins, June 21, 2010

Just a few years ago, the healthcare sector lagged behind the rest of the economy on healthy workplace issues such as smoking cessation and weight-loss counseling.

Not any more.

An impressive number of hospitals and healthcare sector businesses–including Baptist Health South Florida, Mayo Clinic, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, CIGNA, Aetna, and Quest Diagnostics–have joined other prestigious Fortune 500 companies such as PepsiCo. Inc, General Mills, and H.J. Heinz Co. on the National Business Group on Health's list of 2010 Best Employers for Healthy Lifestyles.

In fact, 25 of the 66 entities that made the list's Platinum, Gold, or Silver status are in some way linked to healthcare, including seven hospitals or health systems and seven health insurers. If actions speak louder than words, it's almost a Greek chorus.

"Healthcare organizations want to walk the talk, and they should," says LuAnn Heinen, a vice president at NBGH, who has overseen the awards program since its beginnings in 2005.

"What is truly exciting this year is the creativity and innovation that so many employers are bringing to their wellness and health management programs," she says. "We're seeing new and improved engagement strategies matched to a company or worksite culture, increased attention to corporate policy supporting healthy lifestyles, and stronger alignment of benefit design and incentives with health improvement targets. Important trends include family and community involvement, improved metrics to assess program performance, and efforts to engage less accessible or decentralized employees."

Heinen says that successful wellness programs all share one common thread: "a real belief that this needs to permeate the entire organization."

"The culture of health is becoming a bit of a buzzword. But companies that really get this understand that this is not a wellness manager in his or her office down the hall. 'This is something we are putting our brand on.'" Heinen says. "'We have C-suite leadership and grassroots. We have a lot of use of health advocates to reach out to work sites. We want this more and more—making a meeting with the wellness coordinator at the time of hire. This is who we are. Health works here.' That whole kind of mentality is permeating. That is the big change."

Beth Rohlfing, director of benefits and compliance at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia–which earned NBGH Gold this year for its two-year-old wellness program–says wellness programs will have to demonstrate a return on investment if they hope to endure and proliferate.

"That is key in our strategy this year: how we can demonstrate to senior leadership our ROI," Rohlfing says. "We are trying to look at our budget process a little differently so we are looking at how much we are investing in wellness programs as a percentage of total medical expenditures. If you look at it that way, we aren't investing as much as we should be. Capturing the ROI is critical. It's the missing piece for us right now, and we are trying to figure out what the metric should be."

Much of the wellness movement makes sense intuitively. Coax employees to lose weight or quit smoking and logically, a corresponding reduction will occur in the cost of providing healthcare coverage along with a reduction in productivity loss. After all, healthy employees use fewer sick days. So far, however, no definitive long-term data suggest these programs work. As anyone who has every tried to quit smoking or lose weight or change other decades of bad habits will tell you, there's a lot of backsliding.

Nonetheless, it's encouraging to see that many leading companies–particularly so many health insurance companies—are sticking with wellness programs even without definitive data suggesting they work. Some forward-thinking companies–understanding that most employees spend two-thirds of their day away from work–are extending the wellness benefits to employees' immediate families. Great idea! Once again, while a lack of empirical data exists to show the ROI for such an expansion of benefits, it makes sense intuitively that if the entire family is committed to wellness, success more likely will occur.

The next few years will prove to be pivotal for the wellness movement. Within a decade, we should have enough long-term data compiled to show what works and what doesn't, and what kind of ROI wellness can generate. Until then, we'll see a lot of experimentation, with different companies from across the overall economy adopting a range of wellness strategies tailored for their particular workforce. It should be interesting.

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John Commins

John Commins is a senior editor at HealthLeaders Media.

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