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Home » Measuring ROI » Ron Goetzel Spins Gold into Straw, Part 1

Ron Goetzel Spins Gold into Straw, Part 1

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

I would invite everyone to join tomorrow (Tuesday’s) webinar by Ron Goetzel. He will be attempting to undermine the National Bureau of Economic Research’s (NBER) outstanding University of Illinois study, which showed — surprise — that conventional wellness programs don’t come close to changing behavior, let alone saving money. I would love to attend, but I, of course, am not invited to his events any more than he is invited to mine. Oh, wait a sec, I invite him to all my events and alert him to all my postings on linkedin so that he can correct any errors I’ve made. Sorry, my memory failed me there for a second.

Speaking of failed memories, he is being joined on this webinar by Jessica Grossmeier. If that name rings a bill, it’s because she claimed her company, Staywell, saved $17,000 per risk factor reduced — about $3000/pound shed — for British Petroleum, having forgotten that she herself claimed it is only possible to save $105/avoided risk factor. See “British Petroleum Wellness Program is Spewing Invalidity.”

Despite this being the Gold Standard of randomized control trials, he will be accusing the NBER of many errors.  (A cynic might note that being accused of making errors in a wellness study by Ron Goetzel is like being accused of cheating on your taxes by Paul Manafort. ) He will argue that:

  1. The study only covered the first year — he won’t mention that the authors also said the first year suggests nothing “is trending towards savings” in future years either;
  2. The study contradicts — you guessed it — Kate Baicker’s infamous 3.27-to-1 ROI, without mentioning that the NBER’s principal investigator, as coincidence would have it, reports to Kate Baicker, so it’s pretty unlikely he would diss her unless the data left him no choice;
  3. The study contradicts all the other findings out there — except for all the other studies testing the par-vs-non-par study design against a benchmark, all of which showed results quite literally identical to the University of Illinois result, in that the wellness program accomplished zero;*
  4. The participants outperformed the non-participants;
  5. They haven’t reported on the screening yet;
  6. It wasn’t a good program. To hear Ron tell it (literally hear him tell it — you can listen to the tape), anytime a program fails, it’s because it wasn’t done correctly. “100 employers [have] programs with really smart ingredients…but thousands of others still don’t do wellness right,” are his exact words in print.  He is refusing to name any of them, other than the old Johnson & Johnson analysis. (J&J is a wellness vendor. Investigator bias, anyone?)

What else will he argue? Tough to say. One thing for certain: he won’t mention my name — any more than Bravo did when they wrongly predicted that the EEOC rules would be replaced in January while I predicted the opposite.  Instead he uses a new vernacular for my postings:  “Industry chatter.”

He probably picked up this idea from Bravo, which uses the phrase “industry noise” to describe me.


Where’s Waldo-meets-Ron Goetzel: Spot the errors and you may win a big prize

So let’s make this interesting. Whoever comes up with the best smackdown of the webinar’s obvious fallacies (and omissions) automatically gets entered in the contest to win the Martha’s Vineyard vacation, with the house, car and private (well, semi-private) beach. It is otherwise open only to people who have won various Quizzify trivia contests, but being able to identify five or ten pieces of “chatter” or “noise” in this self-anointed “expert webinar” clearly counts as being health-literate.  To compete, send me an email with an attachment. I’ll pick a couple of finalists and put them on linkedin. (If you don’t want your name used — and Ron does bite back, so I don’t blame you — I will post on my own.)

*The result is also quite consistent with Ron’s observation that there is basically no change in behavior leading to risk reduction. If we are splitting hairs here, Ron found a 1-2% reduction, not 0%. Of course, that took three years.






  1. Mitch Collins says:

    So are you and Ron spending the holidays together again?


  2. williammcpeck says:

    Thanks for letting us know about the Webinar Al as I had not seen any announcement. I registered and look forward to hearing what the two PhD’s have to say about the study and its methodologies.


    • whynobodybelievesthenumbers says:

      And you might win the trip!


    • whynobodybelievesthenumbers says:

      Bill, remember that the par-vs-non-par was within the OFFERED group, and the RCT design is OFFERED vs. NOT OFFERED. Don’t let him snooker you into thinking the former means anything if the latter doesn’t show separation.


  3. williammcpeck says:

    Guess I won’t win the trip because I didn’t hear either Dr. Goetzel or Dr. Grossmeier say anything that tripped my BS meter. As I understand the U of I study results, I thought they were accurate in what they said about the study. What I didn’t know nor have I heard anywhere else is that a first year study report revision was released mid-year which I will now need to hunt up and read. We have known for a long time that a wellness program built around an HRA, screenings and one educational offering is not a comprehensive approach, which is the approach found to be most effective. As for the content of the rest of the Webinar, I also did not hear anything that tripped by BS meter. So I guess I won’t be re-visiting Martha’s Vineyard any time soon.


    • whynobodybelievesthenumbers says:

      Very little changed in the midyear report. Ron is his own worst enemy. If you measure 39 variables and 37 are epic fails, that IS the headline, not that 2 of them “succeeded.” He is right that we have known for a long time that “pry, poke and prod” doesn’t work…and yet that didn’t stop him from giving those programs awards for excellence until they stopped giving them out last year.

      Bill, if you ever happen to find yourself there — and it is drivable from Augusta — I would be happy to host you.


      • williammcpeck says:

        Thanks for the insight on the mid-year report Al. Is learning no change or difference between participants and non-participants really an epic failure? I guess it depends on one’s perspective. That is certainly not my perspective when it comes to the purpose of research and program evaluation. Given the nature of the U of I program model, I wouldn’t be surprised when the yearly results come out that there is no change observed in years 2, 3, 4, and 5 as well. As was rightly stated in the Webinar, what you deliver for programming and interventions need to be designed so as they might potentially have an impact on the outcome you desire or are hoping to see. With 80% of the larger employers offering some sort of wellness initiative, but only 7% offering a comprehensive approach (as seen in the national 2004 survey anyway) the employer and worksite wellness practitioner communities have much to learn and a lot of room for growth. Not likely I will “find” myself on the Vineyard, but I appreciate your offer to host me and I will would most certainly like to come for a visit at some point in the future.


      • whynobodybelievesthenumbers says:

        Just give me a few days’ notice anytime between mid-June and mid-August. Here’s the thing about participants-vs-non-participants.

        Bill, to your point, the thing is the ENTIRE difference in performance between participants and non-participants turns out, in this case and the 3 others which were benchmarked, to be completely due to the motivation bias. Ron and friends have known that for years. But if you don’t accept that, and you’re content to just “show savings,” you’ll never be able to test to find out what really does work. He claims to have an interest in finding out what really works (which is tough because the people who pay his bills are the “pry, poke and prod” companies) but that can’t be done without being willing to measure correctly.


  4. Bob Merberg says:

    Al, I’m not usually one to comment on other people’s blog posts, and certainly not one to promote my own content, but I attended the webinar and found the conclusions drawn by the presenters to be egregious. One of the presenters correctly pointed out that subjects in the treatment group were, “More likely to report that the employer values worker health and safety.” But then — bizarrely — he went on to say, “In other words, … people felt more engaged, and had better morale, and had better feelings of satisfaction working for the employer by being in the treatment group. In my mind, the headline ought to be ‘Wellness Program Increases Employee Engagement and Morale’ as opposed to ’37 Things We Didn’t Find Any Difference In.'” Another presenter termed this the key finding.

    But feeling like your health and safety are valued, while important, is by no means a the same as morale, engagement, or job satisfaction. In fact, the study did not measure morale or employee engagement. It did measure job satisfaction, self-reported “bad emotional health,” and changes in happiness at work, and found that the intervention group experienced no significant improvement compared to the control group.

    If we were to jump to any conclusions from this study, they might be that feeling valued are NOT linked to job satisfaction and other psychosocial metrics.

    To promulgate that the “key finding” was improved morale, improved employee engagement, and improved job satisfaction, is at best a sign of failure to understand the study, and at worst a deception. Under any circumstances, it’s a disservice to the study subjects who presumably consented to participate in good faith science, to the researchers — who were meticulous in their methodology and transparency — and to those of us in the wellness industry who are more interested in understanding what works rather than distorting facts to serve our own self-interest.

    More in my blog post:

    Mostly for fun, a time-lapsed video of my research and writing process on this subject:


    • whynobodybelievesthenumbers says:

      This is absolutely hilarious and we miss your blog sooo much. If it helps, the other comments I got privately were quite similar though perhaps not as detailed. Like “Ouch!” and “Yucch!”


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