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Should the Wellness Vendor Oath Be: “First, Do Harm” ?

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When Thomas Edison said: “We don’t know a millionth of 1% about anything,” he wasn’t talking about the wellness industry, because wellness vendors aren’t that knowledgeable.  And much of what they “know” is harmful.

Smoking and exercise aside, taking wellness vendors’ advice 10 years ago — during the time wellness was somehow allegedly racking up its famously fictitious 3.27-to-1 ROI by making employees healthier– would have been a very bad idea.  PSA tests, annual mammograms for younger women, colonoscopies at 5-year intervals, and EKGs were perfect examples of must-to-avoid screens, even if it meant leaving incentives on the table.

And yet even though most wellness vendors (Star Wellness, Bravo Wellness Total Wellness, HealthFair Services and Aetna being notable exceptions) won’t harm employees as much as they did 10 years ago, a lot of mythology still causes a lot of harm today, albeit more subtly.

Myth: “We need to ‘do wellness’ because 75% of our healthcare cost is due to preventable chronic disease.” (Ron Goetzel, in our recent debate, boosted this figure to 80% for reasons unknown.)

Fact:  Have ya looked at your high utilizers and other expenses? We-can-prevent-75%-of-cost-due-to-chronic-disease is the biggest urban legend in healthcare. We’ve done multiple articles on it — there are too many fallacies to squeeze in here.  Though it’s just arithmetic, this is the most harmful fallacy of all, because by causing employers to obsess with overprevention, it spins off all the other fallacies below.

Myth: “Reducing our employees’ BMIs will save money.”

Fact: The actual science is far more nuanced.  Some people have high BMIs because they are healthy.  And belly fat — even at “normal” weights — is riskier than all but the highest BMIs.  Further, attaching money to weight loss between weigh-ins creates a binge/crash-diet cycle that is decidedly unhealthy.

Myth: “Corporate weight loss programs save money.”

Fact: No corporate weight loss program has ever saved money. They don’t reduce BMIs, BMIs are the wrong measure (see above), and the link between reducing BMIs and saving money is nonexistent.

Myth: “Screening our employees will be good for their health.”

Fact: Annual screenings are a bad idea for the majority of employees. The head of Optum’s wellness operations, Seth Serxner, just acknowledged this inconvenient truth last week.  (He somehow shifted the blame to employers, for stupidly spending too much money on Optum and other vendors. That’s a topic for another post.)  The US Preventive Services Task Force has a schedule of screenings that essentially no wellness vendor follows. Because so few biometric screens are recommended for working-age adults by the card-carrying grownups who comprise the USPSTF, following USPSTF guidelines would bankrupt the industry.

Myth: “Screening guidelines balance costs and benefits so at worst we’ll break even.”

Fact:  Screening guidelines balance harms and benefits, not costs and benefits.  The subtlety of the distinction would be lost on most wellness vendors, but it is important.  (1) Unless screens are provided free, an employer will lose money even on a screening program done according to guidelines; (2) you are not doing your employees any favors by providing screening “greater than” guidelines, like the Health Fitness Corporation/Nebraska program did.  You are simply raising the likelihood of harm.

nebraska screening guidelines

Myth: “Annual checkups will keep our employees healthy.”

Fact:  For wellness vendors, the annual checkup has almost mystical power. Bravo’s CEO Jim Pshock loudly credits checkups with preventing cancer.  Wellness vendor bloviating aside, the science is quite settled: employees are more likely to be harmed than benefited by annual checkups.

Myth:  “Our employees need to eat healthier.”

Fact:  OK, there is a, uh, grain of truth here.  Many people have bad diets–fried food, sugar etc. But beyond eating less fried food and sugar, the science remains unsettled.  Salt, saturated fat, complex carbohydrates…all in the realm of not completely settled. What is true and remarkably overlooked is the epidemiological rule of thumb that if an impact is major, it shows up in small samples. 86 cases were needed to link lung cancer to smoking. And a famous study of 523 veterans proved very high blood pressure causes strokes. Yet after tons of controlled and observational studies — even comparing countries to one another — we still haven’t found “the answer.” That means “the answer,” whatever it is, won’t matter much in the workplace.  So you’re wasting your time trying to get employees to “eat right.”

We could keep going — antioxidants are more likely to cause cancer than prevent it. Sitting is not the new smoking.   And drinking eight glasses of water a day is good for you only in that you’ll get more exercise going to and from the restroom.

The biggest myth of all?  Wellness vendors actually do anything of value, other than make up savings figures to show your CFO so you look good.  Or as my colleague Vik Khanna says: “Love your employees.  Fire your wellness vendor.”

 


5 Comments

  1. Tom Emerick says:

    Every paragraph is brilliant. The New England Centenarian study showed only a most trivial correlation between longevity and ever having a physical exam.

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  2. Melissa says:

    And additionally regarding the healthy eating: let’s not forget that many of the algorithms used by vendors to determine things like “healthy” eating are flawed. Thus completing a risk assessment could show you are ‘wrong’ when in fact you’re right! Recent studies show that fats are actually necessary in our diet and that it’s not fast food & soda that is making us fat, its the amount of food we’re eating. A high grain low fat diet could be the absolutely wrong diet for someone with diabetes. The rules are changing fast, trying to apply one set of do’s & don’ts to everyone, just ain’t going to work.

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    • whynobodybelievesthenumbers says:

      yes, yes, yes and yes. The science is unsettled, as we observed (and you added more observations), and you are also adding that there are many nuances that go straight over these wellness vendors’ heads, partly because becoming a wellness vendor requires less training than becoming a housekeeper at the Four Seasons.

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  3. Nicole Ausmus says:

    Thank you for saying “sitting is not the new smoking.” I was at a carrier conference a few years back (Anthem or Medco, I think) and one speaker’s topic was “sitting disease.” Yes, he called it a disease, and it was the worst scare-mongering I’ve ever been subjected to, especially since all of us in the room had “desk jobs.” (Basically we were all going to die about 10 years too soon because of sitting so much.) It made me angry and I rejected his argument, though it has caught on, unfortunately. Health and science are SO nuanced, as you point out, and most of that is lost on the public because those aren’t the messages that get through.

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    • whynobodybelievesthenumbers says:

      As usual you are spot on. You put it even better than we did. If you have a topic of interest that you would like to guest-blog on, we would be happy to accommodate you.

      Like

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