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Wellness Vendors Dream the Impossible Dream

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Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said. “One can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”


Six impossible things before breakfast?  The wellness industry would just be getting warmed up by believing six impossible things before breakfast. They believe enough impossible things all day long to support an entire restaurant chain:

Consider the article in the current issue of BenefitsPro — forwarded to me by many members of the Welligentsia — entitled: “Can the Wellness Industry Live Up to Its Promises?”  BenefitsPro rounded up some of the leaders of the wellness industry alt-stupid segment. Specifically, they interviewed US Corporate Wellness, Fitbit, Staywell, and HERO. Each is a perennial candidate for the Deplorables Awards — except US Corporate Wellness, which already secured its place in the Deplorables Hall of Fame (and Why Nobody Believes the Numbers) several years ago with these three paeans to the gods of impossibility.

In case you can’t read the key statistic — the first bullet point — it says: “Wellness program participants are 230% less likely to utilize EIB (extended illness benefit) than non-participants.”  Here is some news for the Einsteins at US Corporate Wellness:  You can’t be 230% less likely to do anything than anybody. For instance, even you, despite your best efforts in these three examples, can’t be 230% less likely to have a triple-digit IQ than the rest of us.  Here’s a rule of math for you: a number can only be reduced by 100%. Rules of math tend to be strictly enforced, even in wellness.  So the good news is, even in the worst-case scenario, you’re only 100% less likely to have a triple-digit IQ than the rest of us.

And yet, if it were possible to be 230% dumber than the rest of us, you might be. For instance, US Corporate Wellness also brought us this estimate of the massive annual savings that can be obtained just by, Seinfeld-style, doing nothing:

So assume I spent about $3500/year in healthcare 12 years ago, which is probably accurate. My modifiable risk factors were zero then and they are still zero — no increase. So my healthcare spending should have fallen by $350/year for 12 years, or $4200 since then. But that would be impossible, since I could only reduce my spending by $3500. Do you see how that works now?

To his credit, US Corporate Wellness’s CEO, Brad Cooper, is quoted in this article as saying: “Unfortunately some in the industry have exaggerated the savings numbers.” You think?

I’m pretty sure this next one is impossible too. I say “pretty sure” because I’ve never been able to quite decipher it, English being right up there with math as two subjects which apparently frustrated many a wellness vendor’s fifth grade teacher:

400% of what?  Is US Corporate Wellness saying that, as compared to employees with a chronic disease like hypertension, employees who take their blood pressure pills are 400% more productive?  Meaning that if they controlled their blood pressure, waiters could serve 400% more tables, doctors could see 400% more patients, pilots could fly planes 400% faster? Teachers could teach 400% more kids? Customer service recordings could tell us our calls are 400% more important to them?

Or maybe wellness vendors could make 400% more impossible claims. That would explain this BenefitsPro article.


Fitbit

We have been completely unable to get Fitbit to speak, but BenefitsPro couldn’t get them to shut up. Here is Fitbit’s Amy McDonough: “Measurement of a wellness program is an important part of the planning process.”   Indeed it is! It’s vitally important to plan on how to fabricate impossible outcomes to measure, when in reality your product may even lead to weight gain.  Here is one thing we know is impossible: you can’t achieve a 58% reduction in healthcare expenses through behavior change — especially if (as in the 133 patients they tracked in one of their studies) behavior didn’t actually change.

You can read about that gem, and others, in our recent Fitbit series here:


Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO) and Staywell

I’ll consider these two outfits together because people seem to bounce back and forth between them. Jessica Grossmeier is one such person. Jessica became the Neil Armstrong of impossible wellness outcomes way back in 2013.  Not just any old impossible wellness outcomes — those have been around for decades. She and Staywell pioneered the concept of claiming outcomes they already knew were impossible.   While at Staywell, she and her co-conspirators told British Petroleum they had saved about $17,000 per risk factor reduced.  So, yes, according to Staywell, anyone who temporarily lost a little weight saved BP $17,000 — enough to clean up about 1000 gallons of oil spilled from Deepwater Horizon.

See British Petroleum’s Wellness Program Is Spewing Invalidity for the details.

Leave aside both the obvious impossibility of this claim, and also the mathematical impossibility of this claim given that employers only actually spend about $6000/person on healthcare.  Jessica’s breakthrough was to also ignore the fact that this $17,000/risk factor savings figure exceeds by 100 times what her very own article claims in savings. Not by 100 percent. By 100 times.

Fast-forward to her new role at HERO. In this article she says:

The conversation has thus shifted from a focus on ROI alone to a broader value proposition that includes both the tangible and intangible benefits of improved worker health and well-being.

Her memory may have failed her here too because HERO — in addition to admitting that wellness loses money (which explains its “shift” from the “focus on ROI alone”) — also listed the “broader value proposition” elements of their pry-poke-and-prod wellness programs. The problem is the elements of the broader value proposition of screening the stuffing out of employees aren’t “benefits.”  They’re costs, and lots of them:

When she says: “The conversation has shifted from a focus on ROI alone,” she means: “We all got caught making up ROIs so we need to make up a new metric.”  RAND’s Soeren Mattke predicted this new spin three years ago, observing that every time the wellness industry makes claims and they get debunked, they simply make a new set of claims, and then they get debunked, and then the whole process repeats with new claims, whack-a-mole fashion, ad infinitum.  Here is his specific quote:

“The industry went in with promises of 3 to 1 and 6 to 1 based on health care savings alone – then research came out that said that’s not true. Then they said: “OK, we are cost neutral.” Now, research says maybe not even cost neutral. So now they say: “But is really about productivity, which we can’t really measure but it’s an enormous return.”


Interactive Health

While other vendors, such as Wellsteps, harm plenty of employees, Interactive Health holds the distinction of being the only wellness vendor to actually harm me.  I went to a screening of theirs. In order to increase my productivity, they stretched out my calves.  Indeed, I could feel my productivity soaring — until one of them went into spasm. I doubt anyone has missed this story but in case anyone has

They also hold the distinction of being the first vendor (actually their consultant) to try to bribe me to stop pointing out how impossible their outcomes were. They were upset because I profiled them n the Wall Street Journal . The article is behind a paywall, so you probably can’t see it. Here’s the spoiler: they allegedly saved a whopping $53,000 for every risk factor reduced. In your face, Staywell!

Here is the BenefitsPro article’s quote from Interactive Health’s Jared Smith:

“There are many wellness vendors out there that claim to show ROI,” he says. “However, many of their models and methodologies are complex, based upon assumptions that do not provide sufficient quantitative evidence to substantiate their claims.”

You think?

Finally, here is a news flash for Interactive Health: sitting is not the new smoking.  If anything is the “new smoking,” it’s opioid addiction, which has reached epidemic proportions in the workforce while being totally, utterly, completely, negligently, mind-blowingly, Sergeant Shultz-ily, ignored by Interactive Health and the rest of the wellness industry.

There is nothing funny about opioid addiction and the wellness industry’s failure to address it, a topic for a future blog post. The only impossibility is that it is impossible to believe that an entire industry charged with what Jessica Grossmeier calls “worker health and well-being” could have allowed this to happen. Alas, happen it did.

And, as you can see from the time-stamp on this post, except at establishments favored by the Wellness Ignorati, breakfast hasn’t even been served yet.


10 Comments

  1. Sam Lippe says:

    “Alt-stupid” doesn’t to the trick. It’s more like “alt-liars.” These people must know how stupid they are. That makes them liars.

    Like

    • whynobodybelievesthenumbers says:

      Perhaps, but it’s more fun to let readers come to that conclusion on their own. I feel like, by just calling them alt-stupid, I am giving them the benefit of the doubt in the integrity department. Still, it would be difficult to believe that Staywell was not aware of their own study when they completely contradicted its finding. An honest vendor would have said: “BP saved 100 times what we had recently concluded was possible. Here’s how they did it,” or “A study limitation is that an unknown confounder caused the underlying true savings to be grossly exaggerated.”

      Like

  2. Mitch Collins says:

    Al, among your many fine traits is the ability to relentlessly push the bar forward. Great article. When you and I first got to know each other I added an Al Lewis folder to m email account. It has a lot in it!

    Like

    • whynobodybelievesthenumbers says:

      Thanks Mitch. It gets harder because most wellness vendors have learned, through bitter experience, not to say stupid things. There is a reason BenefitsPro could only find these four. The others are smart enough to know what fate awaits them. You may recall that recently I was in a podcast where the producer said no one was willing to take the opposing side. That was a wise move on their part.

      Like

  3. Gerber says:

    So basically they are all saying: Everyone else makes up numbers but we dont.

    Like

  4. Dell Dorn says:

    The really bad thing is, wellness vendors are learning to shut up in print. Wanna bet they still use all those lies in their sales pitches to potential customers?

    Like

    • whynobodybelievesthenumbers says:

      There’s always the Koop Award to look forward to. It’s a catch-22 for them. Applying is of no use if you aren’t going to win, but you can’t win without lying — and by definition anyone who applies for the award is too stupid to lie without being caught.

      Like

  5. D D says:

    Solid article . Legitimately laughed out loud vs serial texters abusing LOL during most chats.

    Sent from my iPhone

    Like

    • whynobodybelievesthenumbers says:

      by the way, just so people don’t think I make up these comments like a wellness vendor makes up outcomes, “DD” and Dell Dorn really are two different people. I know them both. (Having said that, I just realized I’ve never seen them in the same room together. hmmm….)

      Like

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