Vital Signs Blog

Do employee wellness programs work? Studies say no … and yes

A pre-Thanksgiving clash emerged between healthcare experts who believe wellness programs sponsored by employers offer long-term savings and create a healthier workforce, and those who think such programs provide no value whatsoever.

Three healthcare consultants wrote on the Health Affairs website Tuesday that wellness programs are money losers, costing employers more than they produce in healthcare savings. More companies are turning to wellness programs, which screen and monitor employees' health, and in some cases, tie health insurance premiums to their behaviors. Employers view them as a way to reduce healthcare expenses and improve workers' health and productivity. But some observers, including the Health Affairs authors, argue that wellness programs aren't achieving their desired results because they are built on a lack of clinical and financial evidence.

“With tens of millions of employees subjected to these unpopular and expensive programs, it is time to reconfigure workplace wellness,” the authors wrote.

A day later, Truven Health Analytics promoted a study from the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine that asserted just the opposite. The study, conducted by Truven but published in the peer-reviewed journal, said large companies that invested in wellness programs have recorded large savings. For example, Truven researchers said for every $1 that Johnson & Johnson invested in its employee wellness program, the company saved between $1.88 and almost $4 on healthcare costs that would have otherwise been incurred.

The timing of Truven's promotional news release was interesting—its study was published more than two months ago in JOEM, yet Truven chose to highlight its findings one day after the Health Affairs article challenged its premise.

Both parties have vested interests in the wellness-program movement. Truven sells wellness data products to employers. Al Lewis, one of the Health Affairs authors, runs his own consulting firm that helps companies manage their disease and benefits costs.

Lewis spoke with Modern Healthcare last year about corporate wellness programs, arguing that organizations should focus in on the small subset of their employees who represent the most healthcare expenses.

“A wellness program is the difference between a deodorant and taking a shower,” Lewis said. “You have to figure out what is stressing your people out. If you are a general leading troops into battle, would you rather have soldiers with low morale or soldiers with low cholesterol?”

While the two sides have drawn a line in the sand, still others say the measure of workplace wellness programs' effectiveness lies somewhere in the middle. Researchers at RAND Corp. reported last year that wellness programs may help cut employer healthcare spending in the long run, but in the short term, they cost just as much to implement as they save. RAND researchers studied seven employers and their 600,000 employees and dependents, finding that wellness programs did not immediately reduce what employers spent on workers' healthcare coverage.

“Resulting cost savings could not be detected, especially when compared to the costs of the programs,” they wrote. “It may take a number of years to detect any effect on costs.”

Follow Bob Herman on Twitter: @MHbherman

Truven Health Analytics supplies Modern Healthcare with data and analyses for its Truven 100 Top Hospitals lists and related publications.


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