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Why do employee wellness industry leaders hate employees so much?

I would like to express my gratitude to the editor of the American Journal of Health Promotion, Michael O’Donnell.  He recently decreed that “despite common lore, I am not an idiot.”  Coming from a man brilliant enough to singlehandedly create entire alternative universes of arithmetic and statistics, “not an idiot” is mighty praise indeed.

michael-odonnell-not-an-idiot-quote

I’m unsure exactly what “common lore” he is disputing, unless he means that the Phi Beta Kappa committee at Harvard also thinks I am an idiot, relatively speaking, because they snubbed me until I was a senior.

I will return the compliment.  Michael O’Donnell is not an idiot either.  Quite the contrary, he and his Koop Committee buddies knew exactly what they are doing when they gave their friends at Wellsteps awards for harming employees.  Bottom line is, these people simply hate employees, and happily throw them under the bus whenever it’s profitable to do so. While Boise is a great example, Penn State still reigns supreme.

While we could write a post about almost any member of that Committee, this post focuses only on one member, Mr. O’Donnell.  Still, it’s hard to dislike the man given all the kudos he throws my way. For instance, in addition to not being an idiot, I am also praised above as: “close to being accurate.” Since we disagree on everything, he is therefore acknowledging that he himself is many light-years from accurate — as Wellsteps and every other Koop award demonstrates.


Michael O’Donnell’s Anti-Employee Jihad

Michael O’Donnell also said, as you can see above, that I am not a “misanthrope.”  However, in this case, I can’t return the compliment.  His new editorial is a misanthropic anti-employee jihad.  First, he says prospective new hires should be subjected to an intrusive physical exam, and hired only if they are in good shape.  OK, not every single prospective new hire — only those applying for “blue collar jobs or jobs that require excessive walking, standing, or even sitting.”   Hence he would waive the physical exam requirement for mattress-tester, prostitute, or Koop Committee member, because those jobs require only excessive lying.

Second, he would fine people for not meeting “outcomes standards.” In an accompanying document, he defines those “outcomes standards.” He specifies fining people who have high BMIs, blood pressure, glucose, or cholesterol.

Finally, he wouldn’t hire smokers at all, because they are so unworthy and untalented. Meaning Humphrey Bogart never should have been cast in Casablanca.  Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell should have piled up rejection letters. Roger Maris should get his asterisk back.*  Rihanna, Simon Cowell, Adele, Brad Pitt, Obama, Churchill, Einstein. Sinatra, Twain, Kidman.  Sheesh!  I agree with you, Michael. What a bunch of losers.

And thank goodness Watson didn’t smoke or Moriarty would likely still be at large.

sherlock-holmes


A Unique Way to Charge Employees for Health Insurance: By the Pound

Almost every nonsmoker would be caught in his dragnet too, as he would “set the standard for BMI at the level where medical costs are lowest.”  Since people with very low BMIs incur higher costs than people with middling BMIs, Mr. O’Donnell would fine not only people who weigh more than his ideal, but also employees with anorexia.

If employees didn’t already have an eating disorder, what better way of giving them one — and hence extracting more penalties from them — than to levy fines based on their weight?  Hopefully, he would allow people with wasting diseases like cancer to appeal their fines.

Employees above his ideal weight would pay per pound, sort of like they were ordering lobster or mailing packages.

Yes, I have a hard time believing anyone would disdain employees that much too, so here is the screenshot:

odonnell-bmi

He claims that all these fines will “enhance morale” for employees, whether they like it or not.


How would Michael defend his anti-employee jihad?

The Wellness Ignorati don’t engage with me, for obvious reasons given their self-immolating comments when they do. So I’ll provide his rebuttal. It would be, as he said in the first screenshot above, that I am once again “creating controversy where it does not exist.”  Clearly, his editorial and white paper are mainstream, and I’m just causing trouble again for no reason.

Michael wonders why, in his own words (echoed by Ron Goetzel), 90% to 95% of wellness programs fail.  He says it’s because employers don’t spend remotely enough money on them. He recommends up to $300/employee/year…and what better way to reach that spending target than to make them go to the doctor, and set up expensive weigh-ins, inspections and fining procedures?

While Michael O’Donnell may not be an idiot, I’m not sure I could say the same about any CEO who takes his advice.



*Maris should get his asterisk back because, as a smoker, he still holds the record for “Most home runs by a player who never should have made the team.”

How the 2016 Koop Award Raises Lying to an Art Form

If you were at the HERO conference, you witnessed a surreal experience.  Executives from Johns Hopkins, Mercer, United Healthcare and elsewhere willing to risk their jobs by perpetuating what has now been exposed as a bald-faced, presidential candidate-level lie: that Wellsteps deserves an award for a program allegedly benefiting Boise teachers so dramatically that costs fell by a third. They will not mention the article in STATNews that came out yesterday showing that school district employee health deteriorated.

You read the article, so you know they are lying.  And they know you know they are lying. And yet the whole thing just continues as though it is somehow all OK because no one is admitting it publicly.

Here is some more detail on the lies in question.


Sharon Begley’s article Wellness Award Goes to Workplace Where Many Health Indicators Got Worse does not lose anything in the re-reading. Quite the contrary, almost every quote in it is either a lie, or exposes the Wellsteps application as a lie. In each case, Wellsteps’ Steve Aldana, Johns Hopkins’ Ron Goetzel, United Health Care’s Seth Serxner, and all the other committee members know it’s a lie, because of the aforementioned article.

“Lie” might seem like a harsh term, but the alternative is to assume that Ron and his cronies have absolutely no idea how to read an outcomes report, even though I have already showed them how to read this report in particular.

True, one could argue that Ron has been known to use the “dumb and dumber defense” when giving his friends their awards, but in this case he can’t pretend he doesn’t know any better because he was quoted in the article.  Another argument that these are lies: no one — not even a member of the Koop Committee — can possibly be this stupid accidentally.


Let’s go lie by lie. Let’s start with the last quote from Ron “the Pretzel” Goetzel, because it sets the stage for the others. He got his moniker because he has a way of twisting and turning words to make himself sound like he isn’t lying.  In this case, he said if “an application said everything went exactly right,” it would certainly raise eyebrows on the Committee.

“Went exactly right”???  Ron, isn’t the entire point of wellness to make employees healthier?  So if a program makes employees unhealthier, we say it didn’t go “exactly right”?

Using this definition, here are a few other things that did not “go exactly right”: New Coke, Yugos, the 1962 Mets, Vietnam, subprime loans, Yahoo, and the 2016 presidential nominating process. And for that matter, Begley’s article points out that McKesson’s 2015 award also wasn’t “exactly right,” in that the program didn’t do anything and the data self-contradicted. It’s not just McKesson. I have been tracking these Koop Award-winners for years, and they all self-invalidate. Each is more hilariously not “exactly right” than the other.

Yessirree, if there is one thing that shouldn’t keep Koop Committee members up at night, it’s the fear that one of their award applications might be exactly right. So the good news is that no Committee member has to worry about contracting an acute case of over-raised eyebrows.


Another lie exposed: It turns out the Koop Estate licenses the name to this cabal in order to make money, just like Dr. Koop licensed his name to make videotapes. The award is now admitted to be “industry sponsored.” This is the first time this provenance has been disclosed in print. It is basically a marketing scheme for the committee members and sponsors. They had claimed to be a “private-public” organization. That Orwellian Pretzel-speak is a lot different from being admittedly industry sponsored.


Next, Dr. James Fries — whose major wellness expert credential is writing an article finding massive population-wide savings against a phony control group by getting a few diabetics to eat less fat — called this “an exemplary program” that “showed improvements in health behavior” leading to cost reduction. Yes, a few self-reported behaviors improved. We suspect the Boise teachers lied, because they clearly lied when they self-reported their smoking (only 2.5% admitted it) and drinking (only 20%).

But let’s assume they didn’t lie–meaning somehow they are different from everyone else when they complete workplace health assessments. Exercising three more minutes a day and eating 0.11 more fruits and vegetables/day cannot reduce health care costs at all, let alone by a third, especially when the employees became unhealthier overall.

This statement would therefore qualify as a mistake, assuming Dr. Fries is not bright enough to already realize it is wrong. If Dr Fries doesn’t retract it now that he knows it’s wrong, it becomes a lie.


That brings us to Steve Aldana.  He has been caught lying many times, including this example where he accidentally told the truth before retracting it.  (He and his friends burn a lot of time trying to explain away instances in which have to explain why they accidentally told the truth but didn’t really mean it.)

His biggest lie is his discussion of regression to the mean. Compare his quote to his application. First, the quote, which shows he is actually familiar with the concept:

“In just one year, many employees will move from one [risk] group to the other,” he explained, “even though they did not participate in any wellness programs or any intervention whatsoever.” That movement, he continued, “reflects changes in health risks that occur naturally,” making it possible that some high-risk people become low risk “even though your program didn’t do anything.”

Contrast that to his application, in which he pretends he has never heard of regression to the mean, and instead attributes the “dramatic improvements” in the highest-risk Boise employees to the “program impact”:

wellsteps-worst-health-behaviors

He also contributed my favorite line of the article: even “one more bite of a banana” can make a difference in people’s health. This is true, of course, for the segment of the population that is starving to death. Otherwise, how dumb is this claim?  Let’s just say that if a college taught him this, it could lose its accreditation.

And that brings us to his biggest lie of all: He says I didn’t understand the program benefits because I didn’t read the data.  I did, of course. I even actually added up the datapoints, which no one on the Koop Committee did. I’ll give Committee members the benefit of the doubt and assume they failed to add the datapoints not because they didn’t want to expose the truth that Boise employees got worse in their friend’s program, but because calculators are not yet available in their cave.

Adding the data would have revealed to them — as it did to me — that they harmed employees. 6397 biometric indicators deteriorated, while only 5293 improved.  This conclusion shared by both Ms. Begley and the Boise consultant, Kellie Wirth, who helped set up the program. Apparently, the law of averages caught up with the perpetrators of this Boise scheme, because Kellie Wirth is honest. She calls the biometric results “very disappointing” and says my concerns “are valid.”


The biggest lie of all: that these extra banana bites and trivial improvements in self-reported health behaviors — combined with statistically significant deteriorations in self-rated health and risk scores — could have any effect, let alone an effect of mind-boggling magnitude, on overall spending:

wellsteps-cost-savings

Funny thing, Ron Goetzel insists that “most programs fail” because they aren’t done right, and that getting to a 1-to-1 ROI is a heroic accomplishment, only achievable when employee health is improved:

goetzel-roi-quote

And yet when it comes to giving his friends awards, failed programs harming employees but generating massive phony ROIs don’t seem to bother him at all.  Let’s see him Pretzel his way out of this one.


One thing vendors love to do is play blame-the-victim. The Pretzel pioneered this approach by saying he had “absolutely nothing to do with Penn State,” when in fact he was in the room when they defended their program to the media.

Seth Serxner stood up, on camera, and basically declared United Health Care/Optum hates it when employees spend too much money on their screening programs, and typically begs to do less. United Healthcare complained that I was making them look bad, but then couldn’t produce a single name of a single employer who would admit to deciding to spend more money for the express purpose of screening inappropriately.

And now here comes Steve Aldana, blaming the Boise school administrators for insisting on throwing taxpayer money away and harming their employees, by flouting US Preventive Services Task Force guidelines. My suspicion is that their Boise customers have an alternative view, but — despite the presumably obvious pride they must be taking in this award — they are refusing to comment on it.  One can only imagine the conversations taking place in Boise right now…and this is before the Idaho Statesman gets hold of this debacle.


And Ron wonders why the number of applications for the Koop Award was down by two-thirds this year…which brings us to yet another lie told by Mr. Goetzel in this article.  He attributes the decline to the following:

the application process, including the requirement that wellness programs submit statistics and rigorous data analysis, has become so strict that fewer programs want to go through the process.

However, if you actually look at the application form, it is exactly the same now as it has been every year this century. And indeed the data submitted, if anything, was more comprehensive then. For instance, the 2000 winner, Fannie Mae, clearly documented all the prostate, pulmonary function and other USPSTF D-rated tests they forced employees to submit to.

The back story of the scathing STATNews smackdown of Wellsteps and Goetzel

This posting is for folks who found us via award-winning journalist Sharon Begley’s “Wellness Award Goes to Workplace Where Many Health Measures Got Worse.”  (Note that no one has ever challenged any of her two dozen awards.)

In the event that you are new to the Wellsteps./Boise School District debacle, here is the back story, very quickly.

  1. Wellsteps lied about savings.
  2. I predicted the combination of lying, incompetence and cronyism would win them a Koop Award.
  3. Wellsteps said: It’s fun to get fat. It’s fun to be lazy.
  4. Wellsteps showed a complete failure to understand wellness.

And so, inevitably…

Wellsteps won a Koop Award. Ron Goetzel and Seth Serxner have never let their friends down in the past, so why should integrity, competence and facts stand in the way this time?

 

Are you smarter than a Koop Award Committee member? Take this quiz to find out

Last week we asked if you were smarter than a wellness vendor. (SPOILER ALERT:  you are — assuming you can read this posting without moving your lips.)  I suggested taking the Interactive Health IQ test, just to be sure.

Now, see if you are smarter than a Koop Committee member. They all reviewed this Wellsteps application and decided it was award-worthy.*

Do you agree that this application is award-worthy? If not, see how many self-invalidators you can find. I don’t mean “challenges” to the data. I mean self-immolations. Remember the mantra: “In wellness you don’t have to challenge the data to invalidate it. You merely have to read the data. It will invalidate itself.”

After you’ve finished, review the answers to see what you got right and what you missed.  You may have read it before since it’s been getting lots of views for six weeks, but I’ve added several observations since the original posting.

You may even find things I missed, so let me know. The reason is that — aside from possibly the first Sunday in November — there aren’t enough hours in a day to identify everything that Koop Committee members “overlook” in their friends’ applications.

If this type of analysis interests you, I might recommend applying for Critical Outcomes Report Analysis certification. This program is run by the Validation Institute, the gold standard in all things analytical regarding population health and employee health. (Disclosure: while I am not an employee, they occasionally subcontract to me.)

There is nothing highly technical in the answer posting. In order to make it possible for a Koop Committee member to understand and hence decide to rescind the award, I used only fifth-grade math, simple declarative sentences, short words, and lots of pictures.


*Speaking of disclosures that don’t appear in the award application, the Wellsteps CEO also served on the awards committee itself until very recently. Indeed, until so very recently that he still says he is on it.

aldana-resume

The latest on Nebraska: Ron Goetzel covers up his cover up.

To our new readers, while 2016 marked the first instance in which a Koop Award was ever bestowed upon a company that harmed employees, 2016 wasn’t the first Koop Award ever to go to a company whose own data showed they fabricated results. Below is a history of one of the Koop Award’s Greatest Hits.


For those of you who haven’t been following the saga of the Nebraska state employee wellness program, here is a crash course, aka “Lies, Damn Lies, and the Nebraska State Wellness Program.”  If you have been following it, you can skip to the end for the latest installment, Mr. Goetzel’s cover-up of his cover-up.

By way of background, this program is called “wellnessoptions” (imagine e.e. cummings-meets-poking employees with needles-meets-a sticky spacebar).   They used to say the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy nor Roman nor an Empire.  Likewise, wellnessoptions is neither optional, if you want a decent deal on healthcare, nor wellness. Instead of wellness, it features a hyperdiagnostic anti-employee jihad in which Health Fitness Corporation (HFC) diagnoses employees but does nothing about the diagnosis except take credit for it.

TIMELINE — PART ONE: HFC’S TROUSERS COMBUSTED

September 24, 2012, 2:00 PM

I read Health Fitness Corporation announcement that its customer, the state of Nebraska, won Ron Goetzel’s C. Everett Koop Award for program excellence.

September 24, 2012, 2:01 PM

I recognize that the cancer outcomes were obviously made up.  Until then, I hadn’t been following the Koop award closely enough to realize that making up outcomes was apparently one of the award criteria, as I later came to learn.

October 2012

I read the full write-up on the program and realize that not only were most of the other outcomes made up, but they had actually lied about saving the lives of cancer victims.  If you screen a few thousand people for colon cancer, you don’t find 514 cases of cancer, and you certainly don’t save their lives, as HFC was claiming.  And you absolutely don’t save money, as they were also claiming.  All this is even more true when you waive age-related guidelines and let anyone get screened, and encourage overscreening by sending out 140,000 letters to state employees graced with the picture of a beautiful young model way too young to be getting a colonoscopy.

age related colon cancer screenings

How this invalid nonsense ever got by all the eagle-eyed Koop Committee members would be a mystery, except that HFC is a sponsor of the Koop Committee.

December 2012

I review the entire application and all the marketing materials.  It becomes obvious that the entire thing was made up, not just the cancer part. They claimed to save $4.2 million because 161 of their roughly 6000 participants reduced a risk factor.

The math is quite self-evident.  Suppose you doubled the number of participants who reduced risks to 312.  It stands to reason that you could save $8.4-million. Double it again to 624 and you save $16.8.

Now double it one more time. If 1,248 people out of those 6000 reduced one single risk factor, you’d save $31.6-million, which is about equal to the entire spending for all 6000 participants.  And of course most medical spending has nothing to do with identifying previously unrecognized risk factors, so this would be quite a feat. (Do you even know anyone under 65 who had a heart attack that could have been avoided by one more workplace screening?)

I later learn that all the Koop Award-winning program outcomes are made up, using exactly the same math.

November 2012 to June 2013

I try to contact the authorities, like Roger Wilson, who allegedly runs this program for the state, but no one seems to care. The rule of thumb in the wellness industry is that what you say counts.  What you do is pretty irrelevant.

June 20, 2013

Breakthrough: The Wall Street Journal editors decide that I am correct, and that the outcomes were made up.  Vik and I are allowed to publish this on their op-ed page.

July 14, 2013

Breakthrough again: Another very well-read blogger professes shock-and-awe that any vendor could lie so blatantly and apparently get away with it.

July 15, 2013

Breakthrough yet again: Ace reporter Martha Stoddard of the Omaha World Herald gets Dennis Richling of Health Fitness Corporation to admit that the outcomes — at least the “life-saving catches” of “early stage cancer” outcomes — were indeed made up.  Richling tries to spin his gaffe by calling the difference between “life-saving catches of early-stage cancer” and saying someone might possibly get cancer in the future “semantics.”   So, according to Richling, having cancer and not having cancer are the same thing.

February 1, 2014

The hilarious wellness industry smackdown Surviving Workplace Wellness is published.  Since the HFC Nebraska program had too many lies to fit on a page or two, it gets its own chapter.  Here’s the opening paragraph, which in all modesty I must admit is one of my favorite in the book.

sww nebraska chapter

February 23, 2014

Nebraska political blogger ReadMoreJoe picks up the scent.  He points out that this wellness program is an obvious fraud.  The problem is that the same posting is also exposing several other equally obvious frauds, so this one gets overlooked.

TIMELINE–PART TWO: GOETZEL STRIKES BACK

Ron Goetzel isn’t about to sit back and let his friends/sponsors/clients be pilloried for a little white lie about saving the lives of cancer victims who didn’t have cancer.

June 2, 2014

At the Health Datapalooza conference, Ron Goetzel, while admitting the Nebraska cancer outcomes data was made up, claims they/HFC still deserve the Koop Award because he somehow didn’t realize the data was made up at the time the award was granted.  And it is true that HFC didn’t actually announce they had made up the outcomes.  Ron would have had to actually read the materials to figure it out, same as I did.

nebraska life saving catches

nebraska cancer cases

September 2014

Ron Goetzel calls the Nebraska program a “best practice” in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine but refuses to answer any questions about the obvious mistakes and inconsistencies in the article.

list of best practices

November 2014

After knowing for 16 months that they had lied, Ron Goetzel, writing in Employee Benefit Newsfinally drops Nebraska from his list of best-practice programs:

goetzel ebv 1

Being a fair-minded person, I take it upon myself to congratulate him on his newfound sense of ethics.  I don’t specifically agree that what he did was ethical, because the ethical thing would have been to admit complicity, apologize, and revoke their Koop Award.  But I do say that Nebraska being dropped from the list of best practices means ethical “progress is definitely being made,” albeit from a low base.

goetzel ebv 2

Only 29 minutes elapses before Ron erases all my illusions about his honesty and re-adds Nebraska to the list of “best practice organizations.”

goetzel ebv 3

He also adds PepsiCo to the list.  I guess losing only $2 for every $1 you spend qualifies as such in wellness, where most organizations lose much more.

May 2015

In a rally-the-base invitation-only webinar, we are told that Ron has promoted the Nebraska program from “best practice” to “exemplar.”  It seems like the more obvious it becomes that the whole thing was fabricated, the more Mr. Goetzel worships its outcomes.

TIMELINE–PART THREE: RON STANDS ALONE

September 2015

WELCOA finally takes the fabricated case study of Nebraska’s outcomes off their website, 26 months after the fraud was admitted. Perhaps some pressure is being put on them to come clean, given that this is Nebraska’s program and they themselves are based in Omaha.

Just for the record, I’m not saying that an organization founded by all-you-can-eat cafeteria magnate “Warren Buffet” knowingly kept a false document on their site for those 26 months. History suggests they might just be slow learners.  [2016 update: WELCOA is under new management, and they appear to be doing a great job, as exemplified by their development of the Employee Health Program Code of Conduct.]

This means Ron Goetzel is literally the only person left who thinks it’s perfectly OK — indeed, a “best practice/exemplar” — to lie about saving the lives of cancer victims.  Good luck with that in the upcoming debate.  It’s him against the world.

Or, as he sees it, everybody’s out of step but Ronnie.

October 2015

Nebraska tentatively re-awards the wellness contract to Health Fitness Corporation.  I am looking over the precipice towards utter humiliation.

TIMELINE–PART FOUR: THE ORIGINAL DATA DISAPPEARS

November 2, 2015–the original cover-up, on the morning of the Great Debate

At our urging, a third party alerted Mr. Goetzel to the fact that, his protestations to the contrary, the Koop Award Committee did know (even if they had somehow not seen the marketing materials quoted above) that Health Fitness Corporation was making fictitious claims about saving the lives of cancer victims.  It was right in the award application.  The original award application from Nebraska had originally stated (underlining is ours):

nebraska cancer original redlined

But then, a hour following the call from this third party the morning of the debate, the original award application suddenly read:

nebraska doctored application

In the original application, this excerpt appears in a letter from the Governor of Nebraska. Only now the Governor’s letter says the opposite what he actually wrote.  In the real world, this would be considered forgery.  In wellness, a forged cover-up of a blatant and admitted lie about saving the lives of cancer victims who didn’t have cancer is considered business as usual. Johns Hopkins and Truven (Ron’s employers) don’t seem to mind either.

April 2016

The state is rescinding its award to Health Fitness and terminating its wellness program. In the immortal words of the great philosopher Stewey Griffin, victory is mine.


September 2016: The cover-up of the cover-up

Mr. Goetzel finally acknowledges that Health Fitness Corporation told a whopper, and the Koop Committee overlooked it, allegedly by accident, for the four years during which I’ve repeatedly pointed it out.

He now calls this an “erratum.”  However, the word “erratum” is usually used to correct honest mistakes (in sharp contrast to this one),  usually within hours or days of their discovery (in sharp contrast to this one).   You can’t forge official state documents and then call the whole thing an “erratum.”  Is a robber allowed to give the money back after he gets caught and just uncommit the crime?

nebraska-erratum

So now, having admitted that the award-winning vendor told the biggest lie in wellness history (against stiff competition), and knowing that all Nebraska’s obviously fabricated savings were mathematically impossible, and that waiving age restrictions for screening is akin to waiving age restrictions for buying beer, the Koop Committee finally, after four years, rescinded the Nebraska award.

Haha. No one falls for that line any more.  Quite the opposite, they are doubling down. They say that whopping lies like this one don’t disqualify you, assuming you are an award sponsor. You get to keep your award.

Ditto, if your entire claim of “separation” between participants and non-participants is shown to be false but you are sponsor, Ron merely doctors the data and you get to keep your award.

Also, if it turns out you lied about your savings because there was no change in the biometrics to attribute the savings to, but Ron was a consultant on your project, you get to keep your award.

Likewise and as was confirmed in 2016, if you are a committee member, as Wellsteps’ CEO was until recently, despite your own data showing that you actually harmed employees, you get to keep your award.

Bottom line: as a friend-of-Ron, you might get to keep your award even if you shoot someone on Fifth Avenue.

Grinding my teeth

I (Vik) have not written a blog post for TSW in some time. Al is quite capable of regularly exposing the wellness industry’s foibles, an easy task given that there is an endless supply of material, and it multiplies faster than bunnies.

However, I occasionally have an up-close-and-personal interaction that is well worth recounting. My son and I recently visited our dentist for the ritualized annual cleaning and check up. We only go once a year, because as a clinician myself it’s been patently obvious to me for some time that twice yearly cleanings, the benefits of which last only until the next burger, and dental check-ups, which are just a search for billable things to fix, are no more beneficial to the health of my mouth than they are to any other part of my body. What matters is the daily routine of brushing and of avoiding sugar-laden foods. Unless you’ve been sleeping through emerging research, you know by now that I am not the only person to reach this conclusion.

Then I met K, a registered dental hygienist I’ve never previously interacted with at our dentist’s office in the St. Louis suburbs. Within 60 seconds of me reclining in the exam chair, the following exchange took place:

K: “I see that you don’t like having x-rays taken. Is there a reason?”

Me: “There is no evidence that screening x-rays have clinical value.”

K: “Do you have dental insurance?”

Me: “Yes.”

K: “Do you pay for the dental insurance?”

Me: “How is it any of your business how I get the coverage?”

K: “Because if you have dental insurance, the cleanings and x-rays are free, so there is no reason for you to not get them.”

Me (growing increasingly annoyed and now zeroed in like a laser beam): “The dental insurance is part of the compensation package my wife’s employer provides her. Nothing is free. There is a cost to everything.”

K: “Oh, I guess that’s right. Well, anyway, you should have the x-ray to prevent future problems.”

Me: “What your evidence that x-rays prevent problems? X-rays don’t prevent anything. It’s just a way for you to look for things that may or may not ever amount to anything, except that you can paid to deal with them.”

K (now slowly realizing that she has perhaps ventured out of her exceedingly small safe zone): “The American Dental Association….”

Me: “The American Dental Association? That’s not evidence; that’s a trade group. I am not here to get x-rays [I am completely asymptomatic and have a wonderful, clean, healthy mouth], and that’s not open to negotiation.”

K: “Well, if you don’t have x-rays at least once every three years, we will be happy to refer you to another practice [a ‘policy’ never once articulated to me in six years of going to this dental practice], and that’s not open to negotiation. I also need you to sign a waiver that you declined the x-ray against our advice.”

Me: “Have you read any of the new research about dental industry practices, such bite wing x-rays, twice yearly exams, and even flossing. There’s no evidence for any of it. The NY Times, The Wall Street Journal, they’ve all covered it. Have you seen any of it?”

K: “Finding things early [on x-rays] is how you prevent problems.

Me: “Prove to me how that’s the case. You are 100%, utterly and completely wrong, and nothing you’ve told me is evidence.”

At that point she got up in a huff and left the exam room, returning after two or three minutes to, finally, blessedly, actually do her job instead of showcasing her ignorance.

My point in recounting this exchange is this: all the hulabaloo about consumer directed healthcare is garbage if the consumer is faced with quasi-professionals like K, who is blissfully unaware of basic health economics, let alone the changing character of the science and the evidence base for her occupation. According to the Bureau Of Labor Statistics, there are 200,000 dental hygienists, and over 10 years, that figure will grow by nearly 19%. Suppose, conservatively, that each of these hygienists does two cleanings daily over 200 working days per year. That’s 80 million consumer interactions like this one where the paying customer is subjected to intrusion, clinical mythology, deception, and the threat of “dismissal” from the practice for non-compliance with a non-evidence based, but cash-producing pointless clinical service. How many consumers are willing to tell their hygienist or anyone else in a white coat (or, in her case, the custom embroidered frock) that they are wrong?

K, who apparently has either no access to the Internet or no interest in professional improvement, was the very image of an unprofessional professional, with no sense of the notion that she’s not in charge of the relationship. I’m the customer, through the good grace of my wife and her employer, who are the payers.  K did a masterful job of channeling the wellness chimera of Ron Goetzel, Seth Serxner, and Rajiv Kumar, spouting the virtues of overprevention today, overprevention tomorrow, overprevention forever.

For all her ill-informed foaming at the mouth about what’s good for me, here’s what stuck with me, and what I plan to explore further: she, on behalf of the practice, threatened to “fire” me as a client for failure to have an x-ray. There is no legal requirement anywhere in the Missouri Dental Statutes or Rules for me to submit to any radiograph. Nor do the statutes or rules state that a dental office is permitted to dismiss a client for non-compliance with voluntary and discretionary clinical service. What I’d really like to know (enterprising anti-trust lawyers should contact me) is if this is common practice in St. Louis or Missouri more broadly and if yes, how it came to be so.

Can you spell C-O-L-L-U-S-I-O-N? I’ll bet K. can’t.


A little addendum from Al. The other thing these folks do is “screen” you for mouth cancer. I declined the screen. The hygienist said I was making a mistake, that she has found 9 cases in the last three years. Doing the math, if she is average, dental hygienists are finding 600,000 cases a year of mouth cancer. No easy feat considering there are only about 45,000 new cases a year, almost all of which occur in a small segment of the population — tobacco chewers and alcoholics — to which I don’t belong.  I didn’t have to sign anything and she didn’t threaten to “fire” me, but otherwise it was the basically the same experience Vik had.

Let’s meet in person at the Employee Healthcare and Benefits Congress next weekend

At the risk of knocking the Interactive Health posting — worth a read if for no other reason than to take the Interactive Health IQ test — off the front page, this one is a bit time-sensitive.

This site has 5200 followers. I’d love to meet some of you. I’ll be at the Employee Healthcare and Benefits Congress Sunday afternoon (speaking on incentives) and all day Monday.  Please text me at 781-856-3962 during that period and we can meet in person and chat about all the worthwhile things they are doing, and compare notes on what we are doing.

Obviously some people can’t make it because it conflicts with the HERO conference, at which the Koop Award will officially get bestowed on a vendor that actually harmed employees according to its own data, which is a first even for the Koop Award, which has had more than its share of ethical and analytical challenges over the years. The chat there will emphatically not be about all the worthwhile things they are doing, but rather the news coverage that is likely to appear around the same time “outing” Wellsteps for harming the Boise employees.

Now get back to the IQ test. See if you can figure out what Interactive Health apparently couldn’t.

 

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