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Home » The 2015 Great Debate » The Great Debate Part 7: Penn State Strikes Back…Goetzel Runs Away

The Great Debate Part 7: Penn State Strikes Back…Goetzel Runs Away

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

If you are just joining us now, you can start at Part 1, where you can also easily download the audio.  The entire commentary thread can be found by clicking on “The Great Debate” on the home page. 

As we delve into the Q&A, a parade of questioners demand to know why their own employers’ programs are so bad.  They are far from alone, as most employees hate “pry, poke and prod” wellness, which is why bribes and fines have to keep rising.

Of those questioners, the most dramatic was a Penn State professor. Those with long memories may recall the Goetzel/Highmark wellness program that was being imposed on Penn State faculty and staff made the national news in 2013, due to its shocking invasions of privacy and general overall cluelessness. I covered in a Harvard Business Review essay entitled The Dangers of Wellness Programs: Don’t Become the Next Penn State.


Penn State Professor Matthew Woessner takes the mike. First he undercuts Ron’s previous answer by observing that my pointing out errors is a key part of peer review.

Then the fun starts, as he talked about the “terrible damage” the wellness program did there.  It “destroyed morale.”  Ron agrees that Penn State was “an awful program” but says he had nothing to do with it “in any way” even though he was in the room during their press conference in which they “took [the] offensive” in this.

goetzel penn state

Are we seeing a pattern here?

  • He ran away from Steve Aldana and Wellsteps, even though they’re on the Koop Award Committee and he just gave them an award for harming employees and lying about it
  • He ran away from the HERO report even though he’s on the board of HERO and wrote his famous letter supporting it.
  • He’s running away from Penn State even though he was right there as a core member of the team when they called a press conference.


The moderator, again coming to Ron’s aid to prevent this debate from becoming a rout, observes that just because one college complains, not all college programs are bad. There are thousands of colleges and only one complained. Therefore, all other colleges must have good programs, according to “4th grade math.”

Professor Woessner jumped on that comment. He pointed out that the faculty at his alma mater, Ohio State, also hate their wellness program.  The faculty is “livid” at Ohio State.

This was one of the biggest smackdowns of the afternoon, thanks to Prof. Woessner. It was a far better retort than anything I could have or did come up with.


Vik Khanna gets a question in. He points out that his wife’s employer’s program, where the vendor is Provant, is also awful.  (Noticing a trend here?) Vik did an 8-part series last year on this Provant program.   It involves checkups (that are more likely to harm you than benefit you, according to the New England Journal of Medicine), annual cholesterol tests (that healthy people are also not supposed to get according to the USPSTF guidelines), and a bunch of other stuff, like telling employees to drink 8 glasses of water a day, which is yet another myth.

Provant water

Ron says Provant has a bad program because it doesn’t adhere to USPSTF guidelines, though none of the Koop Award winners adhere to those guidelines either. He repeats one of his themes of the debate: “There are a lot of lousy programs out there, including the one you’re part of.”


I point out that Ron gave an award to Nebraska, which was decidedly a lousy program. They had admitted lying about saving the lives of alleged cancer victims who never had cancer in the first place.


Ron says Nebraska won the award because they had “solid evidence they improved the health risk profile of the population.” Yet, according to their own figures, a mere 161 out of 19,000 state employees (<1%) shed a risk factor.  He calls their evaluation methods “excellent.” This means in wellness it is “excellent” to claim $4.2-million in savings when 161 people reduce a risk factor and you admit lying about cancer.  This entire lying-about-cancer thing has now morphed into a rewriting of history, as noted on an earlier installment.

Though just a sidelight in this debate, Ron Goetzel just admitted that he has no idea how to evaluate outcomes. This program accomplished nothing, according to their own data, and yet claimed massive savings. Somehow in Ron’s universe, this is award-worthy because his colleagues ran the program.

By the way, this program was awful, whether Ron says so or not.  (The vendor is a sponsor of the Koop Award, so Ron won’t admit it.)  Surviving Workplace Wellness devoted an entire chapter to it. Here is a snippet:

sww nebraska chapter


Yet another employee subjected to yet another worthless wellness program complains to Ron about it, “suffering through 4 sessions with my health coach.”  He blames her and her program for being bad and says she needs to change her behavior.

Shame on you for being a bad employee!  You need to take a time-out.  (You and most of the rest of the country.)


The AARP lobbyist, Debbie Chalfie, adds AARP to the list of organizations that have multiple concerns about wellness.  Ron adds programs with surcharges to the long list of programs he doesn’t like, even though Bravo hired him to allege massive, self-invalidating, savings at Graco by doing surcharges. If the name “Bravo” rings a bell, it’s because that was the outfit that used to brag about how they could generate immediate savings by surcharging employees until we pointed out it probably wasn’t a wise idea to boast about that.

I use one of my prepared zingers here. If all these programs fail — Ron’s colleague Michael O’Donnell says the figure is 95% — “that’s not an industry. It’s a lottery.” Literally, excluding oil producers, no organization in the US would undertake any investment whose biggest promoters admit a 95% chance of failure. And yet, due to the lies told by wellness vendors and their consultants, lots of companies do.

Ron wraps up this section of the debate with yet another admission that wellness doesn’t work: he says “programs are very hard to implement effectively.” On this point we would agree. But as a former corporate CEO of a NASDAQ company, there’s no way I’d devote more than $100/employee to a program that probably wouldn’t have worked, had no evidence in favor of it other than what wellness vendors say, and could easily have backfired like every program described in this debate so far.

Further, we have a great culture at Quizzify, one that I have posted about on Linkedin.  A great way to wreck that culture would be to start pestering employees about stuff that is none of my business and doesn’t affect me, the customers, or the shareholders.



  1. Mitch Collins says:

    Magnificent. If all these programs fail — Ron’s colleague Michael O’Donnell says the figure is 95% — “that’s not an industry. It’s a lottery.”


  2. temerick479 says:

    another terrific post.


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