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Should your employees get annual checkups?

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

Quizzify knows. Click to learn more.

Note that this blog post is my personal posting and does not necessarily represent the views of any organization with which I am affiliated, other than the one with which I am most closely associated, and of which I am one of the founders.  I am referring, as everybody knows, to the Needham Frisbee Club.  People who play Ultimate 3 times a week don’t need no stinkin’ checkups.

Why Wellness Vendors Hate Information: A New Theory

I have no clue why wellness vendors hate information so much.  Perhaps they are repressing childhood memories of being bitten by a librarian.

A far-fetched theory, perhaps, but there is simply no other explanation for half the things half these very stable geniuses insist upon doing.  In many cases, reams of information demonstrating the futility, fallacies and even harms of what they do is right there — begging to be googled — and yet no one in the wellness industry (or at least the wellness companies “profiled” on this site — there are plenty of exceptions listed at does.

Before we get into the checkups, consider some other information gaps, like the eight-glasses-of-water urban legend. Anyone with an internet connection can easily learn that you do not have to drink eight glasses of water a day, and the whole meme was completely made up. 70 years ago someone estimated that humans require that much water a day — but also that basically everyone with access to water already gets that much without having to force themselves to drink when they aren’t thirsty.

Yet try telling that to a wellness vendor (excluding the ones who have signed the Code of Conduct, of course). One vendor, Provant, even provides an infographic in case the employees they are harassing can’t count to eight:

Wellness Corporate Solutions — no stranger to these pages — has gone one step farther.  Along with their crash-dieting contests, they offer what they call “healthy competitions” to see who can drink the most water:

Water-drinking “healthy competitions” may or may not make employees “more aware of their health status,” but they certainly make employees “more aware that this meeting better end really soon.”

Maybe WCS should combine those two competitions — along with their massive overscreening campaigns — to create a competition to reward employees for doing the most stupid things to themselves.

Failure to understand that thirst is your brain’s signal that you need a drink of water is not an isolated oversight. Wellness vendors take great pride in their ignorance of wellness generally. Consider their propensity to screen the stuffing out of employees. There are clinical guidelines for optimal screening frequencies and lists of biometrics that should be screened for, that most wellness vendors (It Starts with Me and Limeade being two huge exceptions) have apparently never laid eyes on. If it helps, here they are:

There are a few subtleties beyond these words. “People at risk for diabetes” (under “Diabetes test”) would include people with high blood pressure or family history (which wellness vendors can’t ask about). It would also include people who are overweight or obese. Additionally, “members of certain ethnic/racial groups may be at increased risk at a lower body mass or a younger age.” Otherwise, it’s quite clear that cardio screenings should begin at 35 for males and 45 for females, and take place “at least once every five years” after that.

Some people should get that frequency, others a higher one. But like most other things in healthcare, the answer is not the same for every employee of every age and every health status, and you do not just screen people because you make money on each screen, so the more you screen, the more you make. Otherwise you end up like Interactive Health, one of the most expensive vendors, positively hyperventilating about all the false positives they’ve found:

Finally, let’s once again review the aforementioned crash-dieting contests, a staple of many wellness programs besides Wellness Corporate Solutions. Schlumberger, for example, pays out thousands of dollars to the team which does the best job packing on the pounds in December and then taking them off in January. “Just plain fun,” is how their ironically named vendor, HealthyWages, describes it.  None of these vendors have apparently seen the CDC’s advisory memo warning that crash-dieting is futile, likely counter-productive, and possibly harmful.

What about annual checkups?

Let’s cut to the chase: there is not one shred of evidence that annual checkups are a good idea for asymptomatic working-age employees.  There are many good reasons to go to the doctor — you notice a change in some aspect of your body, you want to develop a plan to improve your health, you need help managing a chronic disease,  or even that you’re sick — but here’s what’s not among them: the earth completing a revolution of the sun.

New England Journal of Medicine says that while the major benefit is “less patient worry,” checkups “may actually be harmful.”

“Less worry” is not necessarily a good thing. An employee (name on request after an NDA — not a made-up person) had a checkup in order to collect a wellness incentive…and as a result of being told not to worry, ignored heart attack symptoms about a week later.

The Journal of the American Medical Association says offers of health checks did not reduce any kind of mortality, but “may be associated with more diagnoses and drug treatments.”

Choosing Wisely says: “Annual checkups usually don’t make you healthier,” and “tests and screenings can cause problems.”

None of this takes into account the cost of annual checkups — which often lead to more unneeded and expensive tests and prescriptions, as JAMA notes — but we have definitely observed that wellness vendors and even some HR departments don’t really care about costs. It’s not their money. Here is Reuters on the high and unneeded cost of prevention.

Here is The Incidental Economist on the same subject.

Meanwhile, I’ve yet to find a wellness program that does not either pay employees to get checkups or fine them if they don’t — or shunt them into a worse health plan unless they submit to an annual physical.

I would also note that, however useless annual checkups are to begin with, they are likely even more useless if someone is visiting the doctor because their benefits department is forcing them to do so, against their will.

Finally, there isn’t exactly a surplus of primary care doctors. Why are we paying healthy employees to take up clinician time that unhealthy employees might actually need?

What is the argument in favor of checkups?

If checkups don’t actually prevent anything, why make employees undergo them? Two reasons have been proposed. One is that employees can “build a relationship” with their PCP.  This of course assumes that neither the employee nor the PCP ever retires, moves or changes jobs. It also assumes that somehow the things that affect employees can be prevented by having a “relationship” with a PCP. However, if you look at the list of the most frequent reasons for hospitalization among the working-age population, it’s kinda hard to find anything that fits that description.

Can you think of any disease in your own life that would be cured by a relationship with a PCP? I can’t think of only one problem — chronic heartburn — that my PCP could have prevented. But she didn’t. The PCP was perfectly happy to keep me on Prevacid, which, as Quizzify teaches (right on the home page quiz!), is likely harmful in long-term use. Fortunately, I happened to run into a yogurt salesman one day, who told me about active-culture yogurt. Within days my heartburn was gone, never to return.

The second argument in favor of checkups, proposed by the CEO of Bravo Wellness, Jim Pshock, is as follows:

The hope is that the [Bravo] program will get people to proactively see their physicians to manage their health risks. Yes, this will, hopefully, mean more prescription drug utilization and office visits, but fewer heart attacks and cancers and strokes.

It isn’t his money, so he is perfectly fine with employees “hopefully” spending more on drugs and office visits.  On the other hand, there is no information supporting his claim that all this spending and all these checkups will prevent all these diseases.  Quite the contrary, 100% of available information reaches the opposite conclusion — especially JAMA, which specifically measured mortality due to heart attacks, cancers and strokes and found no improvement. You’ll fine zero information suggesting the contrary finding, no matter how hard you search.

Perhaps when he was a toddler, Mr. Pshock’s parents threw him into an entire cage of librarians.

What is the best frequency for checkups?

The literature is quite adamant: not at all.  That seems a bit extreme and I would bet the people who write these articles do occasionally get a checkup. For the most reasonable compromise I would turn to Quizzify, the leading health literacy vendor. They recommend a simple mnemonic: get two checkups in your 20s, 3 in your 30s, 4 in your 40s, 5 in your 50s, and annually after that. Quizzify’s advisory colleagues, doctors at Harvard Medical School, approved this recommendation too. As with most other questions, this one carries the HMS “shield.” (Quizzify also reports that this question is the one most likely to be removed by its customers, which is an option for all questions in their database before they get seen by employees.)

So what’s the solution?  

In three parts, it’s:

  1. Screen according to guidelines
  2. Send employees to the doctor at age-appropriate and health-appropriate intervals
  3. Pay the fines on overdue books.


  1. Marissa says:

    I love how you work a “b” theme into your postings and then close it out at the end, like Dave Barry.


    • whynobodybelievesthenumbers says:

      Exactly where I got the idea. I can only manage it about a fifth of the time but those are my favorites when I do.


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