So much to say about Interactive Health, so little room on the internet. As a result this will be a two-part blog, at least.
Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the spectrum, we are going to be highlighting the most positively influential people and organizations in the field. Please go vote or submit additional nominations.
The following axiom proffered in Surviving Workplace Wellness used to be ironclad:
“In wellness, you don’t have to challenge the data to invalidate it. You merely have to read the data. It will invalidate itself.”
I thought this axiom applied to every vendor claiming huge savings. But, alas, Interactive Health is an exception. Yessiree, it turns out you can invalidate their data without reading the data. It had been easy enough to invalidate their data by actually reading it — so much so that my original observations about them made it intp the Wall Street Journal . They counterpunched by redacting all the raw statistics on risk reduction. (They didn’t realize I kept a screenshot, which will be the subject of Part II.)
Since risk reduction is what generates financial outcomes, taking risk reduction stats out of an financial outcomes report is like the movie theater in South Korea that decided The Sound of Music was too long, so they edited out the songs.
The Wall Street Journal debacle taught them half their lesson: they learned not to publish data, because data will obviously invalidate their savings claims. Last week they learned the other half of their lesson the hard way, which is that they shouldn’t publish anything, period. On Linkedin they bragged — without any data at all — about the gobs of money they saved by discovering all sorts of undiagnosed conditions and achieving trivial reductions in overall risk scores.
Of course it’s mathematically impossible to achieve massive savings by making asymptomatic employees anxious about diseases they almost certainly don’t have in any clinically meaningful sense, and/or slightly by reducing risk factors. With that in mind, I merely asked a question or two about the whereabouts of the data to support this mathematical impossibility…and <poof> their posting disappeared from Linkedin.
Even absent the data, it’s well-known that Interactive’s modus operandi is to do exactly that — attribute massive savings to trivial risk score reductions and “newly discovered conditions.” Neither m.o. is unique to them. Indeed both are common enough to have names — the Wishful Thinking Multiplier and Hyperdiagnosis. Interactive’s brilliance is in marrying the two.
Interactive Health, the Wishful Thinking Multiplier and Hyperdiagnosis
The Wishful Thinking Multiplier is defined as:
total savings/total reduction in risk factors.
The Multiplier originated with Staywell allegedly saving British Petroleum million of dollars when only a few hundred employees reduced a risk factor — which worked out to almost $20,000 for every risk factor reduced. As luck would have it, this Multiplier was about 100 times what Staywell themselves previously claimed was even possible, which in turn was about 100 times what is actually possible. Yet, as we’ll see in the next installment, Interactive’s Wishful Thinking Multiplier leaves Staywell in the dust.
The practice of wellness vendors bragging about how many sick people they find is called “hyperdiagnosis.” It originated when Health Fitness Corp breathlessly declared that about 1 in 10 screened Nebraska state employees had cancer.
Hyperdiagnosis differs from “overdiagnosis” in that doctors try to avoid overdiagnosis, because it results in expensive and potentially harmful overtreatment.
By contrast, hyperdiagnosis is something that vendors like Interactive embrace. Indeed, Interactive practically hyperventilates every time someone tests positive for something. Since Interactive screens for everything under the sun — 38 panels, way more than most checkups and ten times what guidelines recommend — it’s tough to get out of one of their screenings without a false positive finding on something.
Here are examples of their hyperventilation in words and pictures, wisely not naming the client in their Linkedin post to avoid embarrassment:
[Their client] recently shared with their employees the successful outcomes they have achieved. First, hundreds of employees discovered new health conditions they were previously unaware of.
I’m sure the employees shared Interactive’s joy in finding out how sick they are! What employee wouldn’t be excited about such a “successful outcome”? And not just a few employees, but rather almost half are now “at risk” with “newly discovered conditions.”
A vendor bragging that nearly half the employees are might lead you to think: “Where do these people get their ideas?”
Glad you asked. Interactive bases their “proven…amazing results” on a report by an outfit called Zoe Consulting. Let’s take a looksee at Zoe Consulting, to learn more about the people they are basing their entire financial value proposition on.
Hey, Butch, Who Are These Guys?
As you can see from this screenshot, Zoe Consulting is a “top-tier nationally recognized research firm.” (Source: Zoe Consulting.) Here are the awards they’ve won (with Google’s commentary in parentheses):
- Two Koop Awards (they didn’t);
- The American Cancer Society Award for Program Excellence (they didn’t);
- The Ethel-somebody Leadership Award from UNC (they didn’t); and
- The Distinguished Leadership and Service Award from the Association for Workplace Health Promotion (they didn’t).
The last reminds me of a summer job selling Collier’s Encyclopedia door-to-door. Collier’s salespeople were instructed to say: “National Geographic won the Kodacolor Award 10 years in a row, but last year we copped the award from them.” One evening I ran into a Grolier’s salesman, who, as it turned out, used exactly the same line in his pitch, down to the exact same faux-cool-70’s-speak verb right out of The Deuce. I called Kodak to see who really won it, only to learn that no such award existed.
Likewise, one of the many reasons Zoe Consulting didn’t win an award from the Association for Workplace Health Promotion is that no such organization exists. So depending on how you count (and whether you count the Koop Awards as one lie or two), they lied six times in two bullet points, which may be a record even in the wellness industry. Seven if you count “top-tier nationally recognized research firm.” Eight if you count “top-tier” and “nationally recognized” separately. Nine for “unbiased.” To reach a round number, I’d say the tenth would be “research.” That’s ten lies already.
In other words, Zoe Consulting is a perfect fit for Interactive Health.
Stay tuned for the next installment to learn why.
You have to read this all the way through because, in breaking with long-established precedent (which needless to say is recounted in loving detail), in 2017 the Koop Award Committee — wait for it — did the right thing.
In 2017, 3 companies applied for a Koop Award. This is down from a peak of 21, and represents the belated recognition on the part of wellness vendors that it simply isn’t mathematically possible to satisfy the requirement of saving money. Thankfully, one of the best attributes of math is that it’s true whether you believe it or not.
Many an employer has won an award, only to learn later — via the media — that their vendor had fabricated the savings. This litany might explain the slight reticence of vendors to shine a light on their own programs:
- Wellsteps: “Top Wellness Award Goes to Workplace Where Many Health Measures Got Worse,” STATNews
- McKesson: “Wellness ROI Comes under Fire,” Employee Benefit News
- Health Fitness Corporation:”Nebraska’s Acclaimed Wellness Program Under Fire,” Omaha World-Herald
An example of what transpires when employers find out they’ve been snookered would be McKesson. If the name “McKesson” sounds familiar, it’s probably because you saw 60 Minutes the other night explaining how drug distributors including McKesson facilitated the opioid crisis.
The good news is, illegally trafficking in opioids doesn’t disqualify a company from winning a wellness award. Is this a great country or what?
Once McKesson got wind that Employee Benefit News was going to publish an expose on how they got snookered, they called in a consultant, not to investigate how they got snookered but rather to mount a coverup. The consultant “clarified” to Employee Benefit News — in lay terms that any fifth-grader could understand — how, among other things, employees’ weight could go down and up at the same time:
“Health indicators in 2013 and 2014 were adjusted in the analysis, while several sensitivity analyses of the ‘inter-individual’ impact that used a matching approach confirmed the results.”
Silly me! Of course weight can go up and down at the same time!
McKesson was not exactly copacetic about this coverage. Here is the reaction of McKesson’s wellness program champion to my analysis, as reported to me:
“I wish you could have been in the room when I questioned the architect of that whole program. I’ve never unintentionally pissed anyone off that much. Red faced and table pounding, it was a moment! He retired 3 days later. Coincidence?”
Next, consider last year’s award, bestowed upon their Wellsteps buddies. Wellsteps (motto: “It’s fun to get fat; it’s fun to be lazy”) is the kind of company that gives cronyism a bad name…but they were overdue for the award, never having won one despite their years of service on the Awards Committee.
Sure, Wellsteps harmed employees, but harming employees has never been a deal-killer for a wellness award. Ron Goetzel observed that employees en masse becoming sicker — both objectively and according to their own self-assessment — only meant that the program did not “[go] exactly right.” By that logic, the Vietnam War did not go exactly right either.
The 2017 Awards
No one won in 2017. The Committee deserves great credit for getting it right this year, finally albeit belatedly acknowledging that it is indeed impossible to get a positive ROI by screening the stuffing out of your employees. So kudos to them!
Instead, they gave “honorable mentions” to the three applicants: Delta Airlines, IDEXX Labs, and Pepsico. I’m sure all three deserved their —
Whoa! In the immortal words of the great philosopher Meat Loaf, stop right there! Come again? Pepsico? That Pepsico?
If one excludes the total debacles at Penn State, Nebraska and Boise — Pepsico runs the single most-pilloried wellness program in history. It was the subject of a Health Affairs article showing massive losses on its wellness program. These losses, massive as they appeared, were likely understated. I was the peer reviewer, and I passed it rather than make the author do more work, because I thought it was more important to get the word out there promptly than to make him recount every single stupid thing they did.
Pepsi’s Latest Innovation
In all fairness to Pepsico, maybe they do deserve at least a “most improved” award, because now you can buy Pepsi made with real sugar. This is a good thing, according to their announcement, even if the people who run their wellness program disagree. One can only imagine what a beleaguered Pepsico employee’s Outlook calendar looks like:
Perhaps McKesson’s consultant could explain this to us.
Delta and IDEXX
I can’t really comment on the other two because none of the four flight attendants I talked to at Delta had any familiarity with their program beyond the basics (“Yeah, I think if you fill out a form and go to the doctor, you get a discount on insurance or something like that”), while IDEXX doesn’t use vendors connected with the Awards Committee and doesn’t make up savings. To bestow an outright win in that situation would go against all precedent, so IDEXX should be happy with their honorable mention.
Theirs is a fitness-based program that deserves a closer look, as a model for what a wellness program should look like. I hope to do that someday.
And perhaps IDEXX is a harbinger of things to come, where wellness is done for employees and not to them, wellness vendors don’t lie about savings, and they endorse and agree to adhere to the Employee Health and Wellness Code of Conduct.
Otherwise, for the wellness industry, there might be trouble on the horizon.