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Altarum Executive Speaks Out Against Wellness Despite Altarum’s Presence on Koop Committee

Do you know whether heartburn pills are safe for long-term use?

Ron Goetzel has a tough enough job already because every article about wellness appearing anywhere but his obsequious trade journals is bad news.  That means he has to spin them and/or hope vendors and consultants can prevent their customers from seeing them.  (Example: we have been banned from most wellness-oriented linkedin groups.  That’s a smart strategy on their part since no one other than us in those groups is going to publicize these articles.)

Also, in our upcoming debate, he needs to defend the indefensible proposition that wellness saves money, when – as his co-authored HERO report shows – he can’t even defend that proposition against findings in his own report.  Likewise, he will have to explain how, even though he’s sure wellness saves tons of money, he won’t attempt to claim a $1 million reward for showing it merely breaks even.

But the unkindest cut of all:  he now has to face down a revolt amongst his own Koop Committee members, who are the self-proclaimed leaders of the wellness industry.  True, they do “lead” the wellness industry in two ways.  The first is their analytical leadership. Combined they lead the industry in self-invalidation.   We’ve found 10 instances of made-up data–including three by Mercer, two by Health Fitness Corporation, two whoppers by Wellsteps, and three others.  Indeed, it was the Koop Committee’s fuzzy math that inspired the line in our book:  “In wellness you don’t have to challenge the data to invalidate it.  You merely have to read the data.  It will invalidate itself.”

Second is their ethical leadership: when Koop Committee members bestow Koop Awards upon their own customers (meaning themselves), a la Nero and the Olympics, their press releases never mention that they sit on and/or sponsor the Committee.

Specifically, Dr. Goetzel now has to explain an employee of one of the most respected organizations ever to be represented on that committee (some might argue the only respected organization on that committee other than Procter & Gamble), just came out against wellness.

Jim Lee, Vice President of the Altarum Institute, just wrote a blog post to that effect. Note: Jim Lee’s views represent his own, not Altarum’s, but you don’t see anyone at Altarum rushing to rebut him.

To put this in perspective, this is equivalent to the time Reagan’s budget director, David Stockman, spoke out against Reagan’s economic policy.  Tip O’Neill would be expected to oppose it…but David Stockman?  He was exiled as a result.

By way of background, Altarum is a nonprofit whose motto is: “Systems research for better health.”  We urge people to visit their website to learn more.  Dr. Goetzel apparently didn’t foresee that if you invite an organization known for its integrity onto your board, there is always the chance that members of that organization — acting on their own (as in this case) or on behalf of the organization — will demonstrate, well, integrity.  We have noted often that integrity–and its cousins, facts and validity–are the wellness industry’s worst nightmares.

Altarum is not the first organization where an employee of a member organization didn’t toe the Koop Committee line.  Another (current!) Koop Committee member, Debra Lerner, also questioned the value of wellness.

Specifically, Altarum Vice President Jim Lee, writing on his own blog (not the “official” Altarum website — these are his own views) cited the pro forma annual wellness visit to the doctor as an example of “low value care.”    I urge you to read the full posting rather than just the highlights below, because in all fairness, his criticism is a bit more muted than the highlights might imply.  He does say that he personally found value in that visit—though he noted he ended up back at the doctor for a real reason two weeks later and covered the same ground, thus making the actual “wellness visit” superfluous.

Altarum (until now, at least) paid its employees to get these wellness visits. When he reported this example of low-value care to his colleagues, he writes:

“I was pleasantly surprised to see the eye rolls, sighs, and strong reactions even from well-regarded prevention advocates regarding its low value. It is not just new, expensive technologies and medications that are running up our nation’s health bill.”

He also reported that: “Altarum Institute [just] had its annual Biometric Screenings, which cost about $70 per person plus $200 in incentives deposited into our health savings accounts [for] Altarum employees [who] completed the biometric screening and annual wellness visit.”

His conclusion?  To recommend to the director of Human Resources that they end this requirement and save “a few hundred thousand dollars.”  He admits this would also “annoy his colleagues,” who would lose the $200 incentive.  (The best part of wellness is getting, in the immortal words of those great philosophers Dire Straits, money for nothing.  Lee recommended taking that perk away in the interest of efficiency and avoidance of overdoctoring.)

Yes, we know it’s not always about us, but too bad he didn’t know about Quizzify – he could tell his HR department to offer that instead, so that employees could still get their $200, but by actually learning something useful about how “just because healthcare doesn’t mean it’s good for you.”  Altarum wouldn’t even have to drop wellness, just offer both options side-by-side and see who takes which and which one actually works.

Plus, every time someone opts for Quizzify over wellness, the savings are immediate owing to Quizzify’s much lower price tag.  And that’s even before counting Quizzify’s savings guarantee, which no wellness vendor dares match.

As for Ron Goetzel and his Koop Committee?  In all probability, they’ll probably ignore this mutiny (hence their moniker “the leaders of the wellness ignorati”).

Otherwise, I don’t know they could spin this one, though perhaps they could hire a consultant to advise him.  I hear David Stockman is available.


  1. Mitch says:

    Al, once again you suffer from bashfullness and excessive humility.

    Great post.


  2. HarryPotter says:

    And Ron seriously thinks he can win a debate when even his own Koop Committee colleagues dispute his claims?


    • whynobodybelievesthenumbers says:

      My guess is that he is under such pressure to respond to the facts we keep revealing, that he’s decided he has more to lose by not debating than by debating. Remember, this is a guy who — the last time a conference organizer proposed this when we were presenting back to back at a California conference — not only refused to debate but said I wasn’t allowed to attend his session so I couldn’t ask questions. I think he is hoping for a draw, that the people who support him coming in will think he won. He isn’t expecting anyone to switch from the Welligentsia to the Ignorati, rather just reassure his base. Literally, I don’t think anyone has ever switched sides in that direction.


  3. Lee Lewis says:

    Al, this was, as always, a delight to read and a very funny revelation. I will check out Quizzify; I’m perhaps the last of your fans to do so, pardon my tardiness.


    • whynobodybelievesthenumbers says:

      [blushing] thank you. Glad you find them funny — tough to write about these people with a straight face


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