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By Al and Vik
Oh, the twists and turns as Ron “The Pretzel” Goetzel tries to wriggle out of all his ethical stumbles.
This time around, we thought we had nailed both him and his cabal handing out the ironically named C. Everett Koop Award to themselves and their friends based on made-up outcomes. Specifically, this time they gave their sponsor (Health Fitness Corporation, or HFC) an award based on data that was obviously made up, that no non-sponsor could have gotten away with submitting. This was the third such instance we’ve uncovered of a pattern of giving awards to sponsors for submitting invalid data while making sure that the award announcement contains no reference to the sponsorship. (There are probably others; we’ve only examined 3, which might explain why we’ve only found 3.)
How obviously was the data made up? Well, take a looksee at this slide, comparing participants to non-participants. This is the classic wellness ignorati ruse: pretending that non-motivated inactive non-participants can be used as a valid control for comparison to active, motivated participants. The wellness ignorati would have us believe that any healthcare spending “separation” between the two groups can be attributed to wellness programs, not to inherent differences in motivation between the two groups. Unfortunately for the ignorati, their own slide invalidates their own argument: in 2005, the label “Baseline Year” shows there was no program to participate in, and yet – as their own slide shows – participants (in blue) significantly underspent non-participants (in red) nonetheless. In Surviving Workplace Wellness, we call this “Wellness Meets Superman,” because the only way this could happen is for the earth to spin backwards.
Given that the 2005 baseline label was in plain view, we just assumed that HFC did not indeed have a program in place for this customer (Eastman Chemical) in 2005, which is why they called 2005 a “Baseline Year” instead of a “Treatment Year.” Not actually having a program would logically explain why they said that didn’t have a program, and why they used that display or variations of it like the one below for 4 years with the exact same label. Presumably if they had had a program in 2005, someone at HFC would have noticed during those 4 years and relabeled it accordingly.
Originally we thought the Koop Award Committee let this invalidating mistake slide because HFC — and for that matter, Eastman Chemical — sponsor the awards they somehow usually win. But while trying to throw a bone to HFC, the Koop Award luminaries overlooked the profound implication that the year 2005 separation of would-be participants and non-participants self-invalidated essentially the entire wellness industry, meaning that is is an admission of guilt that the industry-standard methodology is made up.
Goetzel the Pretzel to the rescue. He painstakingly explains away this prima facie invalidation. Apparently the year 2005 was “unfortunately mislabeled.” Note the pretzelesque use of the passive voice, like “the ballgame was rained out,” seemingly attributing this mislabeling to an act of either God or Kim-Jung-Un. He is claiming that instead of noticing this invalidator and letting this analysis slide by with a wink-and-a-nod to their sponsor, none of the alleged analytical luminaries on the Koop Committee noticed that the most important slide in the winning application was mislabeled — even though this slide is in plain view. We didn’t need Edward Snowden to hack into their system to blow up their scam. They once again proved our mantra that “in wellness you don’t need to challenge the data to invalidate it. You merely need to read the data. It will invalidate itself.”
We call this the “Dumb and Dumber” defense. Given two choices, Goetzel the Pretzel would much prefer claiming sheer stupidity on the part of himself, his fellow Koop Award committee members like Staywell’s David Anderson and Wellsteps’ Steve Aldana, and his sponsor HFC, rather than admit the industry’s methodology is a scam and that they’ve been lying to us all these years to protect their incomes.
Still, the Dumb-and-Dumber defense is a tough sell. You don’t need Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot or even Inspector Clouseau to detect a few holes in the Pretzel’s twisted logic:
- How could no one – no member of the Koop Award Committee or employee of Health Fitness Corporation (which used this as its “money slide” for years) – have noticed this until we pointed it out for the third time (the first two times not being as visible to the public)?
- In early 2012, this slide was reproduced–with the permission of Health Fitness Corporation–right on p. 85 of Why Nobody Believes the Numbers, with the entire explanation of its hilarious impossibility. We know Mr. Goetzel read this book, because he copied material out of it before the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, made him stop. So we are curious as to why it has taken until now for him to notice this “unfortunate mislabeling.” Hmm…would the fact that it was just exposed to the world in Health Affairs have anything to do with this sudden epiphany? We’re just sayin’…
- If indeed it was just an “unfortunate mislabeling,” how come HFC has now expunged all references to this previously highlighted slide from their website, rather than simply change the label?
As regards the third point, we would recommend that next time Mr. Goetzel invokes the Dumb-and-Dumber defense, he coordinate his spin with his sponsor.
But let’s not overlook the biggest point: the entire Koop Committee – including “numbers guys” like Milliman’s Bruce Pyenson and Mercer’s Dan Gold — is apparently incapable of reading a simple outcomes slide, as they’ve proven over and over.
So, as a goodwill gesture, we will offer a 50% discount to all Koop Committee members for the Critical Outcomes Report Analysis course and certification. This course will help these committee members learn how to avoid the embarrassing mistakes they consistently otherwise make and (assuming they institute conflict-of-interest rules as well to require disclosure of sponsorships in award announcements) perhaps increase the odds that worthy candidates win their awards for a change.
It’s a 3-way tie for the Deplorables Award this year, so I think we’re gonna need a bigger basket.
This race to the bottom was hotly contested this year, as we try to determine who, in the wellness industry’s epidemic of very stable geniuses, is Patient Einstein. These wellness vendors routinely violate rules of grammar, ethics, math and even wellness itself in their attempts to outstupid each other. Yes, I know that word is not in the dictionary but that’s only because Merriam-Webster uses a different wellness vendor.
They also violate the rule that there are two sides to every story. In each case, this is their story, just annotated. In no case are we “challenging the data.” Quite the opposite. There is a saying that: “In wellness, you don’t have to challenge the data to invalidate it. You merely have to read the data. It will invalidate itself.”
It’s a 3-way tie, in that three companies accomplished more in 2021 than most stupid people accomplish in a lifetime. It may seem impolite to call them “stupid,” but the alternative would be that they know their claims are false, so the alternative would be to call them liars.
And sometimes, as in the case of one of our winners, we ourselves would be lying if we didn’t call them stupid. Here is the official catchphrase from the landing page of their website. I would call this collection of wellness industry cliches a word salad, if only all of these were words.
That’s because they’ve achieved the elusive quadruple aim of wellness: reducing employee costs, increasing employee productivity, raising employee engagne-ment, and poking employee cheeks.
Needless to say, Wellsteps is back in the Deplorables Award winner’s circle, for the third time in six tries. I keep trying to retire from the business of exposing fraud in wellness. But just when I thought I was out, Wellsteps pulls me back in.
I’d like to propose that the Justice Department go after them. Not because they are lying, cheating and harming employees. Those are table stakes for wellness vendors profiled in these pages. Rather, they should be investigated by the Antitrust Division for trying to create a monopoly on stupidity.
Yes, it seems like hardly a month goes by without the irresistible force of Wellsteps’ corporate IQ colliding with the immovable object of reality. They lit up the scorecard twice in 2021. First was Wellsteps Accomplished the Impossible: They Got Stupider. The highlight was that they “updated their ROI calculator.” But here are the three asterisks to that statement. Their “ROI Calculator”:
- is not updated.
- doesn’t show an ROI.
- doesn’t calculate.
Not content with a single entry in this year’s contest, they entered a second time, with Dog Bites Man…and Wellsteps Fabricates Its Outcomes Again. At the risk of insulting the 76 million canines in this country, Wellsteps fabricating its outcomes is the “Dog Bites Man” headline of the wellness world. it really shouldn’t make the front page, especially in an industry segment as idiot-intensive as theirs. Yet transparently fabricating outcomes is their signature move, so I do like to make sure they get credit for it.
Wellsteps’ problem is that they aren’t remotely smart enough to lie without being caught. They may or may not be the most dishonest vendor, and they may or may not be the stupidest vendor, but they are certainly the stupidest dishonest vendor.
They would also be a finailist for the Chiquita Award, by the CEO, Steve Aldana claiming that health can be improved with “even one more bite of a banana.”
I’ve always recommended to Mr. Aldana that if he is going to lie so much, he needs to hire a smart person.
Just when I thought wellness vendors couldn’t get any dumber than Wellsteps, I found this one. See Wellsteps: We’re the Stupidest Wellness Vendor. Wellness360: Hold My Beer.
The difference is that Wellness360 is not dishonest. They genuinely believe that we must drink 15 glasses of water a day – they aren’t just saying it to qualify for the pole position in our award competition.
How do I know they genuinely believe we need “hydration wellbeing challenges” to meet this goal, even though the quoted study itself says “the vast majority of healthy people meet their hydration needs by letting thirst be their guide”? They wrote to me to defend their findings, and also cited the massive savings reported in the 2010 Health Affairs article. I pointed out the slight problem that the authors of that study themselves retracted that conclusion when they did their own results, and found the opposite. Wellness360 replied: “Thousand’s [sic] of studies monthly give different results for sure,” which of course clears everything up.
They also posted a recipe for ginger snaps that sounded quite tasty…
…largely because it calls for a cup of sugar and 1/4 cup of molasses. I observed that perhaps it wasn’t exactly on-message for a wellness vendor to be advocating consumption of sugar by the cupful. They posted back that, to offset the sugar, the ginger offers three attributes that I had apparently overlooked. Ginger:
- “Keeps your body warm,”
- “Keeps your health in check,” and
- “Is a diaphoretic.”
It’s not just you. I had no clue what “diaphoretic” meant either. So I looked it up. Diaphoresis is a medical condition characterized by “excessive sweating for no apparent reason.”
The good news is we’ve solved that medical mystery by finding that there is an “apparent reason” – those 15 glasses of water a day have to go somewhere.
Readers of Why Nobody Believes the Numbers may recall that you can’t reduce a number by more than 100%. This is true no matter how hard you try. And just in case our friends Down Under were wondering, this is not one of those things that’s the opposite in the Southern Hemisphere.
Wellsteps is giving that assertion a run for its money.
Following that headline above (from a full-page spread in the Boston Globe) they’ve doubled down on stupidity to win the wellness industry’s race to the bottom, and, with the demise of Interactive Health, Wellsteps is easily the dumbest vendor in all of wellness.
Still, you have to admire their commitment to stupidity. I and others have pointed out maybe a dozen times that their entire business doesn’t accomplish anything other than harming employees, but they refuse to budge.
Calling them the dumbest vendor in all of wellness is quite a compliment. That’s because the alternative would be to call them the most dishonest vendor in all of wellness. Besides insulting their integrity, that’s not an easy feat to accomplish in this industry. It would be like calling out a specific entitled zillionaire as the most dishonest parent in the entire Varsity Blues scandal.
Their “Updated ROI Calculator”
The reason they’ve made the news today is that they’ve just published an “updated ROI calculator.” And a big thank you to Jon Robison for forwarding it to me, as Wellsteps has banned me from their linkedin group and everything else.
There are a few things you might want to know about their updated ROI calculator. As you’ll see once you expose it to light, this updated ROi calculator:
- is not “updated“
- doesn’t show an ROI
- doesn’t calculate.
Three lies in three words. That breaks Ron Goetzel’s record of 14 lies in 45 minutes.
No need to take our word for any of this. Here’s the only thing that is updated: the font. This makes it easier to see what happens if you actually try to enter data into this model. Sort of like actually trying to drive a Yugo
Start by zeroing out inflation as a confounder (“0”). Then, for simplicity and consistency, enter “1” into number of employees, as below. I entered $1000 into annual healthcare costs, just to use a round number.
Then let the games begin.
Let’s see how much they save in the best-case scenario. Enter 100% into the two fields “% Employees that [sic] are obese” and “% Employees that [sic] are smokers.”
As an aside, normally one would use “who” in this situation, but they don’t, for two reasons. First, One of Wellsteps’ signature moves is creative sentence structure, spelling, and mixed metaphors. The CEO, Dr. Steve Aldana, called the late award-winning journalist Sharon Begley a “lier.” He once accused me of violating the Law of Conservation of Matter, saying that I am “great at creating BS out of thin air.”
Second, perhaps the reason they preferred “employees that” to “employees who” is because another of their signature moves is to dehumanize employees. Their exact words, subsequently deleted after criticism, were: “It’s fun to get fat. It’s fun to be lazy.”
Back to the Calculator
Let’s see what happens if you do a fantastic job, and reduce the number of “employees that are obese” and “employees that are smokers” from 100% to 0%. So enter those two figures:
Then go to the right — directly on top of this “hockey stick” graph as you can see, and hit “savings from wellness programs.”
Congratulations. You’ve reduced the $1000 spend by $1379, which is a reduction of more than 100%. While I merely allegedly violated the Law of Conservation of Matter, they’ve just clearly violated a basic law of arithmetic, and those are strictly enforced.
You might say: “That’s not fair. Let’s use a more realistic risk reduction figure, like 0%, which is what all the literature says is achieved:
In the immortal words of the great philosopher Gomer Pyle: “Surprise, surprise, surprise.” You still show mathematicaly impossible savings.
You still show savings even if employees get worse. This is Wellsteps’ signature move in real life, as they harmed the employees at the Boise School district…and still fabricated massive savings:
The actual savings they fabricated — along with their inadvertent admission that costs actually increased — can be found here. Costs can’t go up and down at the same time. Yet another rule of math that is strictly enforced.
What if you don’t have any employees on your health plan, so you spend $0 to begin with? Turns out you can still save a bundle if you have no costs to begin with, even without reducing smoking or obesity.
Before you start fiddling with it, be aware that the very stable geniuses at Wellsteps who came up with this calculator once accused me of “entering false data” into it. So make sure your “data” isn’t “false.” To avoid that:
- use only arabic numerals…
- …in base ten.
Turns out no matter what data you enter, you save money. Don’t take my word for it–see it with your own eyes.
Stupid? Well, let’s just put it this way. NASA engineers need not worry about their job security on account of Wellsteps, because these people are not rocket scientists.
Or Wellsteps’ CEO, Steve Aldana, actually dishonest?
Let’s examine the evidence both ways. Here are the three best arguments for stupid:
- He says he needed 11 years to get through college. (p. 7) That’s 4 more years than Bluto Blutarski.
- He thinks “even one more bite of a banana” will improve your health.
- He is friends with Ron Goetzel.
Here are the the three best arguments for dishonest:
- He admitted that his alleged savings at the Boise School District was just regression to the mean. (Scroll down.)
- He knows this “model” is fabricated and has criticized me for pointing that out.
- He is friends with Ron Goetzel.
And let’s not forget that Wellsteps’ claim to fame is actually bragging about harming employees. To this day, they are the only vendor willing to publish data admitting that employees got worse on their watch. And that puts them in a category all their own. Like Juan Garcia, whose espionage work won him the highest military awards from both Germany and Britain, this performance earned them both a Koop Award (see #3 above) and a Deplorables Award.
Does that mean they are dishonest, stupid, or both? To slightly paraphrase the immortal words of the great philosopher Clarice Starling, there isn’t a word for what they are.
Update: Many of you know about the $3 million reward for showing wellness works. If Steve Aldana and his team of very stable geniuses with very good brains can show that their calculator is more accurate than Quizzify’s ROI calculator, I am doubling my $3 million reward and halving the $300,000 entry fee. The rest of you can stop reading here. Steve, that would be a $6 million reward for a mere $150,000 entry fee.
In the wellness industry’s very stable genius pandemic, AngioScreen is Patient Einstein.
The Deplorables Award, as many of you might remember (you’re excused if you’ve forgotten — it’s been 2 years since a vendor was deemed worthy enough to qualify) goes to that vendor whose combination of dishonesty and patient harms would make Ron Goetzel blush. Angioscreen is all that and more — the kind of outfit that gives clueless wellness vendors a bad name.
Angioscreen had earned the pole position for 2021’s award even before this month’s Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reminded us that — for the third time in as many plate appearances (2007, 2014 and now 2021) —they struck out with the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). They gave Angioscreen’s go-to carotid artery screen a “D.” In no uncertain terms, JAMA and USPSTF say: “Don’t do these screens to your employees.”
I “profiled” Angioscreen years ago…but never gave them a Deplorables Award on the assumption that they would asymptotically approach irrelevance on their own merit. After all, what benefits manager would ever retain this outfit? Surely no actuary would be dishonest enough to be paid to “find savings” in these screens, and no consultant or broker would be corrupt enough to take money to pitch them, right?
Surely someone would notice that right on their very own website, they cited the fact that the USPSTF gives them a “D.”
And surely someone would notice that Angioscreen’s other business is convincing hospitals to screen communities in order to find new well-insured patients to admit for major surgery…and make the obvious inference that the same screens that are designed to generate admissions can’t also reduce admissions, right?
Haha, good ones, Al.
The hospitals nailed this
Angioscreen is a surgery-generating machine. Here is an employer, who at least had enough sense to withhold his name, bragging about the major vascular surgeries his employees underwent for asymptomatic carotid artery stenosis (CAS) thanks to Angioscreen:
Two of our employees were found to have blockages in their carotid arteries. Through follow-up visits with their physician, these employees found arteries that were significantly blocked that required surgery.
Maybe the employees really needed the surgery? In the immortal word of the great philosopher Brittany Spears, oops. The National Institutes of Health warns against precisely this:
Despite a D recommendation from the USPSTF… many surgeries or interventions for asymptomatic CAS continue to be performed [due to] free screenings.
Wait, you might say, maybe those patients needed those screens to avoid a stroke.
Haha, good one again, Al:
- As JAMA says, “only 11% of strokes” are caused by internal carotid stenosis. Since only about 1 in 1000 employer-covered people has a stroke, you’d have to screen almost 10,000 <65 employer-covered people to possibly have a slight chance of preventing a stroke with a major surgery.
- If Angioscreen’s test is 95% accurate (in their dreams), you’d also refer 500 false positives to their doctors, and some would undergo risky, painful, and expensive major vascular surgery as well, probably like those two in the mercifully unnamed employer above.
The employers got snookered for a change
Funny that Angioscreen wouldn’t attach a name to that reference site, because it’s only a slight exaggeration to say Angioscreen’s customer list includes practically every non-Quizzify-customer (the latter tend to have triple-digit IQs, making them poor prospects for Angioscreen) in the Fortune 500. Here it is:
You might say, that’s not many. True, but that excerpt is only a tiny fraction of the total – I didn’t want to hog the internet by listing all of them.
Perhaps you see some employers on that list that make you think: “Why would a smart, capable company like so-and-so be an Angioscreen customer?” I asked myself the same thing, as I was surprised to see a Quizzify customer on the list. So I asked them, mentioning my surprise.
Turns out they were every bit as surprised as I was. They had no idea they were on that list and had never heard of Angioscreen.
But wait…there’s more. Now how many inappropriate screens would you pay for?
Another reason I had originally demurred from bestowing this award on them was that I also thought that maybe after a while their conscience would get the better of them, and they would stop doing these screens. Perhaps they might pivot from decidedly harmful screens into the more mundane screens that are simply a useless waste of money.
How silly of me.
Quite the contrary, once they realized they had stumbled upon a huge untapped market for employee hyperdiagnosis, they added several more inappropriate screens:
If “Ankle Brachial Index” screening sounds familiar, it’s precisely what Marty Makary warned us against in The Price We Pay as the poster-test for generating unneeded and harmful surgeries.
If ”peak systolic velocity” sounds unfamiliar, it’s because it’s such a stupid idea for a screen that the USPSTF has never even bothered to recommend against it, on the theory that no one would screen their asymptomatic patients for this. A doctor would literally lose their license for routinely doing these screens and billing insurance for these.
And, just in case there is still any employee naively of the mistaken impression they are living their lives diagnosislessly, there’s the D-rated ECG/EKG. These are not supposed to be done because they — get ready — often “reveal” abnormalities that don’t really exist or are harmless…but once revealed, generate follow-up tests.
Fortunately, this next inappropriate screen costs extra, which might discourage a few employers.
Of course, if you indicate to a real doctor something that might suggest you are at risk for an aneurysm, you should get tested, and if the aneurysm is truly large and life-threatening, be referred for this surgery, despite its mortality rate exceeding 7%. That’s different from an unlicensed vendor playing doctor by screening unsuspecting employees for no reason other than to earn “supplemental” fees. Or, as one commentator put it:
My main objection, however, is that I’m uneasy about taking people off the street who think they are perfectly well and subjecting them to a procedure from which 1 in 14 will die.
And so it is with great honor that I bestow the Deplorables Award on Angioscreen as the fourth recipient of this august distinction, joining Wellsteps, and bankruptcy court denizens Interactive Health and Provant. (The latter avoided a Deplorables Award only by going bankrupt after our initial expose, before we had time to bestow the award.)
So, before we get into the fun stuff, let me express my condolences to Interactive Health’s non-management employees, who probably had no idea their employer was living a lie. For them, I will make pdfs of my books on outcomes measurement free, provide a free coaching session on outcomes measurement, and basically try to be as helpful as possible in this job market. Just ping me on linkedin.
To paraphrase the immortal words of the great philosopher George Carlin, consider how stupid the average wellness vendor is. Now realize that half of them are stupider.
Yesterday, in a shocking display of efficient markets, Interactive Health (IH) went bankrupt, stiffing enough creditors to make a President blush. I do feel badly for those creditors, though no one should offer credit to a company that can’t even pass its own IQ Test.)
Or perhaps IH ran out of money because they spent so much of it developing their “smoking recession program.”
And, proving that it’s not only great minds that think alike, Interactive Health got this effusive write-up from Ron Goetzel’s outfit. Ron, please never write a glowing case study of Quizzify. I’m not sure we could survive it.
Some of their greatest hits include:
- Interactive Health gives clueless wellness vendors a bad name
- Interactive Health fails fact check by college intern
- Interactive Health breaks its own record for stupidity
- Is Interactive Health’s advice dumb enough to require a warning label?
- Interactive Health botches both its lies and its cover-up
- The very stable geniuses at Interactive Health once again put their very good brains on public display
See a pattern here? If so, then it’s safe to conclude they never would have hired you. You’re overqualified.
Wellness trade association concedes that wellness loses money
The Health Enhancement Research Organization HERO) and all its pilot fish have finally thrown in the towel on defending “pry, poke and prod.” No surprise, given that only one vendor out of 1000 (well, out of 999, I guess) has managed to consistently reduce risk. They (US Preventive Medicine) are too honest to claim savings for it.
Recall the write-up we did on the National Bureau of Economic Research’s wellness study a few weeks ago? HERO has now accepted its validity, by refusing to comment on it. What alternative did they have? The dilemma for these people was that every single one of them used the following, same, observation to diss the study when it reported initial results:
- The National Business Group on Health (financed by wellness vendors, of course) said: “The lack of first-year cost savings should not be surprising.”
- Paul Terry, Prevaricator-in-Chief of the wellness industry promotional journal, said it was only a “1-year program and that no one familiar with a socioecological approach would have deemed this intervention to qualify”
- Ron Goetzel, trying to poke holes in what he admitted was a “superb” methodology, said:
Although the Jones et al study was titled “What Do Workplace Wellness Programs Do?” a more appropriate title might have been “What Did the University of Illinois Workplace Wellness Program Do, in a Very Short Amount of Time?”
So what are you supposed to do with all these mentions of a single year (or a “very short period”) once the second year shows the same thing? Here’s what Interactive Health would do…
Here’s how an ad gets published. It’s a two-step process. I will lay it out so that even the dumbest member of the media who somehow missed this the first time when they swooned over Livongo’s outcomes can understand it now:
- Your employees and their colleagues write it.
- You pay to have it published.
Now, let’s look at what Livongo just published, touting their own outcomes, to see how, if at all, it differs from an ad.
- Their employees and colleagues wrote it.
- They paid to have it published.
- We missed this the first time around. Our excuse is, so did quite literally everyone else who covered the story. And “covering stories” isn’t our Day Job. We aren’t journalists. We don’t even play them on TV. We’ve never even watched journalist shows on TV, unless you include Superman reruns. Livongo seems to have a lot in common with that show, transparency being their kryptonite.
The journal is called the Journal of Medical Economics. Sounds really prestigious, so points for that. Yet virtually no other journal article cites articles in this journal, giving it an Impact Factor south of 2. (New England Journal of Medicine gets a 70.) Turns out there’s a reason no one cites it. Here’s how you get published in it. You pay them money.
They would say, yes, but we got it peer-reviewed. To which I say, apparently you didn’t in any meaningful sense. A real peer reviewer would have found and questioned all the fallacies in their article, rather than rubber-stamp some very sketchy “findings,” which for convenience’ sake are all catalogued in one place.
There is nothing wrong with advertising your outcomes, as long as your ad is labeled as an ad. You often see airline magazines with entire sections advertising various cities, using articles and pictures. But they are always labeled as ads. If you don’t do this, there is always the slight possibility, however remote, that someone doesn’t do the research to figure out that in fact this publication was pay-to-play. If that were to happen, you might see a headline like this:
Whereas a more accurate headline might read: “Livongo Pays for an Article to Claim Its Product Works.”
Update January 3: Someone contacted me to say that the correct term for paid highly information advertising is “Sponsored content.” This term would apply perfectly to Livongo’s self-generated, self-published study. They should relabel it as such.
Finally! A valid way to measure wellness outcomes that requires only a calculator, a triple-digit IQ, and complete suspension of disbelief! Introducing the Wishful Thinking Factor, or WTF. Those of you accustomed to reviewing wellness vendor outcomes may think those initials stand for something else…and we will indeed use those initials in their more common context at the end of this posting.
By contrast, this WTF is defined as:
Dollars claimed as savings/percent improvement in risk factors.
The elegance of the WTF is exceeded only by its widespread acceptance. WTF is already the wellness industry’s preferred analysis, so I am merely confirming that we agree. The only difference between my WTF calculation and theirs is they don’t actually put the numerator and denominator on the same page.
Meaning, they don’t actually announce: “Here’s our huge savings generated by our trivial risk reduction…wait…this is impossible…WTF???”
That’s because then it would be perfectly obvious that they are fabricating the savings. Instead they put “dollars saved” on one page and the improvement in risk factors on another page, way far away — and hope nobody compares them. (Interactive Health is the most stable genius example of that, as we’ll see below.)
What is the real causal relationship between risk reduction and savings?
A distressingly relevant joke circulated among us rip-roaringly hilarious faculty back when I taught in the Harvard economics department. A chemist, physicist and economist are stranded on a desert island with only a can of beans. To open it, the physicist suggests dropping it off a cliff, so that it will open upon impact. The chemist points out that would splatter the contents, and suggests instead that they put the can in a fire, and once the can gets hot enough, it will melt. The physicist points out that the beans would all burn up in the fire. At an impasse, they turn to the economist and ask what he would do.
The economist replies: “Assume a can opener.”
In keeping with that spirit, we will make six (count ’em, 6) equally generous assumptions for determining the true WTF:
- Every wellness-sensitive medical admission or ER visit is a direct function of the risk that the wellness vendor measures in a population. In other words, social determinants of health and genetics have nothing to do with the likelihood of a heart attack or diabetes event
- Even the dumbest wellness vendors know how to measure risk (following their five days of training in medicine)
- Employees never cheat to improve their biometric scores and never lie on their risk assessments
- Dropouts and non-participants would improve in risk at the same rate as participants do, so the fact that they don’t participate doesn’t change the overall risk reduction in the population
- No lag time between risk reduction and event avoidance
- No false positives, no added lab tests, drugs, doctor visits or anything else that might possibly increase utilization and cost of outpatient care in order to reduce inpatient utilization — which of course is the opposite of what the wellness trade association readily admits to:
Using those generous assumptions, measured wellness-sensitive medical admissions (WMSAs), and the total cost of those events, would decline at the same rate as measured risk declines. According to the Health Enhancement Research Organization, WSMAs comprise no more than $100 PEPY in a commercially insured population. So every 1% decline in risk yields a spending decline of $1.
Relaxing the assumptions above would likely reveal that this WTF is also overstated, but it has the advantage of consensus among the 60+ experts who contributed to the HERO outcomes guidelines measurement tool, so we’ll call this the Gold Standard, to which other WTFs are compared.
Now let’s make a little list of the WTFs compiled by the industry’s very stable geniuses, in their great and unmatched wisdom. Naturally, in that category, the first to come to mind are Interactive Health and Ron Goetzel.
Let’s start with Interactive Health. Excluding dropouts and non-participants, they claimed a 5.3% risk reduction (20.3% reduced risk while 15% increased them). So they saved a maximum, assuming the six assumptions above, $5.30 PEPY:
The claimed savings was:
Averaging those claims yields $804, for a WTF of 151.
As a side note, allocating that $804 in savings across the 5.3% who actually did see a decline in risk factors yields over $15,000 per risk factor reduced. No mean feat when you figure that the average person only incurs about $6000 in employer spending. That was enough to get them in the Wall Street Journal
A second example (and there are many more) is the Koop Award given to Health Fitness Corporation for lying about saving the lives of cancer victims who never had cancer. The coverup of that fabrication was the lead story about Nebraska, along with whether Ron Goetzel had committed an actual crime, as opposed to simply snookering the rather gullible state, whose reaction when they found out is best described as Human Resources-meets-Stockholm Syndrome.
Mr. Goetzel defended his actions by saying that lying about saving the lives of cancer victims was overlooked by the awards committee, and what really earned Nebraska the award was saving $4.2 million by reducing 186 risk factors. Let’s calculate the WTF from that.
the absolute reduction in risk was 0.17 (1.72 to 1.55) on a scale of 7, or roughly 2.4%. That represents about 180 people out of 5199 reducing a risk factor. (Of course, the remaining 15,000 of the 20,000+ state employees dropped out and/or wanted nothing to do with this program, but that’s a different story. So much winning!)
And yet somehow, despite only 180 people claiming to reduce a risk factor, the program saved $4.2-million, or $807 apiece for the total 5199 people. That yields a WTF of 336.
Speaking of Koop Awards, The Koop Award Committee is known for its embrace of WTF arithmetic, and it’s that time of year again during which they put their very good brains on full display. For instance, they once gave an award to Pfizer for saving $9 million, or roughly $300 per employee. How did Pfizer do that? With a 2% risk factor decline. Pfizer’s WTF worked out to about 150.
As a sidebar, Pfizer’s award application includes our all-time favorite displays:
Pfizer’s wellness team sent employees emails on weight control tips. Those who opened the messages lost about 3 ounces while those who did not open the messages gained 2 ounces. That could easily be accounted for by the number of calories required to open the emails.
The 2019 Koop Award
Most recently, the very stable geniuses just gave an award to Baylor Medical School, where, in keeping with tradition, risk factors declined by a whopping 1% — at least among the 25% of the workforce willing to be screened twice (!!!) a year to earn a 20% premium reduction. Let’s take a looksee at the biometric screening results:
The claimed savings — in keeping with Koop Award tradition, buried deep on another page — were $333/year, yielding a WTF of 320.
For any readers out there with the IQs of a Koop Award Committee member, let me spell out the pattern you’re seeing: the wellness industry’s own data yields WTFs 150 to 336 times greater than the wellness industry’s own guidebook estimates.
If anyone would like to reach me to review this arithmetic, or report their own vendor’s results, contact me directly. Schedule-wise, I’m not available today (Monday) or Tuesday. However I am available later this week, specifically WTF.
Part 2 picks up where Part 1 left off, as coincidence would have it.
Soeren Mattke (as mentioned in the last installment) and I were quite relentless in trying, quixotically, to get Professor Baicker to explain her results. Its popularity could have landed her many profitable speaking and consulting gigs, but she evinced no interest in cashing in, or even in defending her position. Indeed, the four times she spoke publicly on the topic, she didn’t do herself, or her legions of sycophants in the wellness industry, any favors. In each interview, she distanced herself more and more from her previous conclusion. Here are her four takeaways from her own study “proving” wellness has precisely a 3.27-to-1 ROI:
- It’s too early to tell (um, after 30 years of workplace wellness?)
- She has no interest in wellness anymore
- People aren’t reading her paper right (Shame on us readers! We’re only reading the headline, the data, the findings and the conclusion, apparently)
- “There are few studies with reliable data on the costs and the benefits” (um, then how were you able to reach a conclusion with two significant digits?)
Individually or in total, these comments sounded an awful lot like retractions, but she (and her co-author and instigator, David Cutler) claimed those comments didn’t constitute retractions. Whatever they were, she wasn’t exactly doubling down on this 3.27-to-1 conclusion.
The industry at this time — 2013 and 2014 — came under a lot of criticism for basically being somewhere between hilariously worthless and a fraud. (Here is some comprehensive documentation of the fraudulent and harmful activity in the wellness industry. Wellness is a classic example of the observation that every cause starts out as a movement, becomes a business, and degenerates into a racket, the poster company for the last being Interactive Health.)
Here’s where it gets interesting. Due to this relentless criticism, instigated and sometimes written by me (most of which is catalogued here) with credit to Soeren Mattke and Jon Robison as well (with Pulitzer Prize-winning LA Times columnist Michael Hiltzik piling on multiple times), Ron Goetzel and his colleagues urged Professor Baicker — who had previously claimed to have no more interest in wellness — to get a grant from Ron’s friends at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do an actual controlled study of workplace wellness to set the record straight. As a strategic gambit, this showed a level of professional judgment worthy of Gary Hart.*
Obviously if you are perpetrating a fraud and you know it, you don’t urge people to investigate it. Mr. Goetzel at this point (or at least shortly thereafter) knew that his industry was a fraud, going so far as to erase some accurate data and disown inconveniently accurate conclusions he had forgotten to suppress.
He even forged a letter from the governor of Nebraska to cover his tracks. (To be completely accurate, he did not forge the signature on the letter. He merely doctored the wording in a letter that was already signed to say something much different than the letter said when it was actually signed. Maybe that’s not technically forgery. Who knows?)
And yet that’s exactly what Mr. Goetzel did. Maybe he thought she was as corrupt as he is, but she has an excellent reputation in this industry. My suspicion is that she accepted his offer for exactly the opposite reason that he made it — to clear her name after her ill-considered 2010 meta-analysis.
Way back in 2016, I predicted how this gambit would turn out — that Katherine Baicker was not going to mail it in this time but rather do a high-quality study of the type she is known for.
Her now-famous outcome was preordained for four reasons:
- In this industry, as Michael O’Donnell pointed out in the trade journal where he formally served as Prevaricator-in-Chief, the higher quality the study, the lower the ROI, to the point where RCTs invariably show negative ROIs. (Owing to the embarrassing accuracy of this unintended finding, Mr. O’Donnell walked it back in a subsequent editorial.)
- Kate Baicker was not going to sully her legacy by being known as the Typhoid Mary of wacky wellness programs, just to please her sycophants.
- She picked the most clueless vendor imaginable to carry their water. This selection couldn’t have been an accident.
- No wellness study since Johnson & Johnson (which was probably also wrong–just not obviously from the data presented) had shown even a remotely positive outcome. This list includes PepsiCo, Barnes Hospital, Nebraska, Vitality, Newtopia, Health Fitness Corp, Health Fitness Corp again, Boise School District/Wellsteps, McKesson, Connecticut, and the University of Illinois. All were epic fails, according to their own data. Not to mention that the wellness trade association itself published a case study showing wellness loses money and then ran away from it.
Where does the wellness industry go from here? They’re hoping for Tiger Woods, wiser souls are channeling Gary Hart, and probably what we’ll get instead is Harold Stassen. (Look it up.)
*For those of you who aren’t old enough to remember, here’s what happened. Dogged by rumors of philandering, the front-running Democratic presidential candidate urged reporters to follow him around. It took about a day for reporters to discover he was indeed philandering. It only took another few weeks for him to withdraw from the presidential race.
Like Japanese soldiers at the end of World War II (including the one who briefly took the seven stranded castaways prisoner), many wellness vendors are refusing to concede that the war is over. Here are three examples.
First is Vitality Group. Their oxymoronic Chief Actuarial Officer, writing in Employee Benefit News, claims that the BJ’s Wholesale Club study was inadequately focused on healthy behavior change
Healthy behavior change should be the central tenet of wellness programs, since short-termism is woefully inadequate for an area as complex as health. To this end, conceptually simply — yet scientifically-robust — interventions have been found to be effective drivers of behavior.
One of the many things wellness vendors don’t understand, along with facts, data, math, and wellness, is irony. It is indeed ironic that a company which couldn’t get its own employees to lose weight is complaining because a program couldn’t get employees to lose weight. Vitality’s “healthy behavior change” caused employee eating habits to deteriorate — once again, according to Vitality itself.
Next you have Steve Aldana of Wellsteps claiming in Kaiser Health News that:
for the efforts to be successful they must cut across many areas, from the food served in company cafeterias to including spouses or significant others to help people quit smoking, eat better or exercise more.
Except that his own study did exactly the opposite. It turned out that taking Wellsteps’ advice will increase your risk factors and cause your self-perceived health to deteriorate.
Finally, Jim Pshock of Bravo was also quoted in that article, complaining about the level of incentives not being great enough to get people to do things they weren’t going to do anyway. Urging employers to give away more money is exactly the opposite of what Bravo typically does, which is fine employees the maximum possible and then brag about how much money employees can save immediately because many employees refuse to participate, preferring to lose the money than to let Bravo play doctor with them.
They missed the best argument against the validity of this study
Ironically, the one legitimate argument that none of the wellness promoters have made is that Professor Baicker picked the dumbest wellness vendor imaginable, Wellness Workdays, to conduct the study. Along with Wellsteps, Bravo, and, of course, Interactive Health, they comprise the wellness industry’s Axis of Stupid.
Wellness Workdays is a classic wellness vendor. That is to say, they won’t be winning a Nobel Prize anytime soon, or even a spelling bee. Let’s start by examining their analytic and clinical prowess.
To start with, their “White Paper” doesn’t just quote the infamous 3.27-to-1. They’ve upped the ante to 6.00 to 1, maintaining the two significant digits while almost doubling the savings. How? They’ve added the 3.27-to-1 for healthcare savings to the 2.73-to-1 for absenteeism reduction from that same 2010 study. Those two separate conclusions were reached from almost totally different studies. Anyone can tell that from reading the original. Anyone, that is, except Wellness Workdays.
Their analytic qualifications are matched only by their clinical qualifications. One member of their medical advisory board is Chief of Allergy and Clinical Immunology at the Indian River Medical Center in Vero Beach, Florida. While this expertise is not exactly central to the mission of the pry,poke, and prod industry, in all fairness it should be noted that the Indian River Medical Center runs one of the better allergy programs in all of Vero Beach.
Another is an OB-GYN in Colorado. Perhaps this advisor will develop a protocol for employees who want to be screened and induced at the same time. A third consults to orthopedists at “Lennox Hill Hospital,” a role that probably doesn’t require too much heavy lifting, because there is no hospital by that name.
This guy is also an expert on steroids and other performance-enhancing products, and has “published rseveral esearch studies.”
So they can’t spell, can’t proofread, can’t understand study design, and can’t cobble together a qualified advisory board. In other words, to paraphrase the immortal words of those great philosophers Gilbert & Sullivan, they are the very model of a modern clueless wellness vendor.
They also appear to have forgotten to update their website since they didn’t get the outcomes they are “driven” by:
As for BJ’s Wholesale Club, I suspect they got suckered into this. Who volunteers to become the next Pepsico, a case study of how wellness programs fail?
In any case, we think Professor Baicker’s study is first rate, and apparently there is another one coming up, a sequel.
Or perhaps, since this is in conjunction with Wellness Workdays, to rseveral esearch studies.
Incredibly, events unfolded almost exactly this way at Penn State during their well-publicized wellness debacle 5 years ago. It was even funnier in real life because while exercise does of course promote wellness, faculty and staff were very restricted in their use of campus recreational facilities. Making those free to employees and dependents was not part of their wellness initiative.
No, instead employees were being forced into an outcomes-based wellness program, one that was supposed to save “millions of dollars.”
Coincidentally, while the Penn State HR department — ably assisted by Ron Goetzel, who later denied having anything to do with them despite being in their press conference – was trying to force employees into these programs, the Penn State bakery announced an expanded selection of pastries and desserts for the upcoming semester.
Penn State’s was, to paraphrase the immortal words of the great philosophers Gilbert & Sullivan, the very model of a modern forced wellness program. Sure, they violated clinical guidelines. That seems to be the price of entry for wellness. More head-scratchingly, women had to disclose whether they intended to become pregnant, or else pay a $1200 fine. This requirement was designed to, in the Highmark representative’s own words in a rather contentious faculty meeting — “help” them. That would be like offering to “help” the proverbial little old lady cross the street — but if she declines assistance, saying: “OK, then pay me $1200. The choice is yours.”
Full disclosure: Highmark has now abandoned their old outcomes-based wellness program on which Penn State’s was based in favor of a much lighter and more appropriate program, and we wish them the best at it. All indications are that it is going very well and is a model for others. A total turnaround.
Back to the storyline…
There is something about forced outcomes-based wellness programs that brings out employers’ inner stupid, and Penn State was no exception. Consider: almost by definition women who are planning to become pregnant have thought about it and have done the basic research. It’s the women who accidentally become pregnant who may possibly have the need for assistance. And even the dumbest HRA wouldn’t ask the question: “Are you going to accidentally become pregnant?”
So, using the very unlikely assumption that women completed the HRA honestly, Penn State’s forced disclosure requirement would have identified 100% of the people who did not need “help,” while missing 100% of the women who might. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s 100% false positives and 100% false negatives. That’s a lot even by wellness industry standards. Eat your heart out, Interactive Health.
And did I miss the memo where carriers were anointed the prime providers of medical “help”? Has anyone ever said to you: “You don’t look so good today. Better call your health plan”?
See https://theysaidwhat.net/2016/04/22/the-story-of-an-employee-who-benefited-from-wellness/ for the back story.