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Health Affairs Kills Wellness Dead
We will be doing a webinar on this very topic — June 30th at 2 PM EDT. Both camps have been invited to present. Register here.
Health Affairs just announced it. The conclusion of the impeccably designed three-year study conducted by Katherine Baicker and Zirui Song showed zero impact in a randomized control trial. This conclusion, of course, confirms exactly what we’ve been saying for almost a decade now–wellness programs have absolutely no impact (other than to occasionally harm employees, of course). In their words:
No significant differences were found in self-reported health; clinical markers of health; health care spending or use; or absenteeism, tenure, or job performance. Improvements in health behaviors after three years were similar to those at eighteen months, but the longer follow-up did not yield detectable improvements in clinical, economic, or employment outcomes.
No one can accuse the authors of having an anti-wellness bias. Quite the opposite, they wrote the seminal article that created the industry. As early as they were in supporting it, I was almost that early in realizing it was a sham (Slate’s word, not mine.)
One could also argue that wellness was already dead — the previous 11 articles had shown the same thing. Vendors excel at hiding these articles from their customers. (If only they were half as good at actually doing wellness…)
The Greatest Hits of the early days of wellness leading to this moment
We knew back in April 2013, that wellness was worthless. We used some simple arithmetic to point out that it would cost a million dollars to prevent a heart attack by screening the stuffing out of employees. It turned out our estimate was wrong — the real number appears to be infinity.
My only question is, why did it take eight years for everyone else to figure this out?
Happily there is one exception to this conclusion. Just like 1 in 1000 money managers consistently beat the market, the 1 in 1000 conventional wellness vendor is: US Preventive Medicine. Their favorable outcomes were achieved without biostatistical sleight-of-hand. Hence they are validated by the Validation institute. (This article concludes by showing how most vendors embrace biostatistical sleight-of-hand.) And yet even USPM doesn’t claim an ROI, so they aren’t validated for savings. Just outcomes.
Spring 2013 also saw the widespread acceptance of the award-winning trade bestseller Why Nobody Believes the Numbers, still used as a textbook in many graduate programs in population health.
Here was our first smackdown naming names, also in 2013. Two recurring themes revealed themselves. First, Mercer’s fingerprints were all over wellness as they are now all over Livongo (which pays them handsomely), thanks to their revenue model of collecting money from vendors as well as buyers.
Second, naturally the program in question won a Koop Award, bestowed annually by Ron Goetzel and his cronies upon the company that best demonstrates what happens to kids who cut math class to smoke in the boys’ room. Our observation on their arithmetic was:
You need not “challenge the data” to invalidate claims that wellness saves money. Instead, you can simply read the data as presented. You’ll find it usually invalidates itself.
Nowhere is that more true than in a study published this month by Mercer, Staywell and British Petroleum (“BP America”) in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (JOEM). As we’ll demonstrate, the results completely contradict Staywell’s own statements, and are also mathematically impossible. Indeed, Mercer was a wise partner choice by BP America because their validations are often unconstrained by the limits of possibility.
I’ve occasionally worried that the Health Enhancement Research Organization (the wellness industry’s Ministry of Truth) might hire away a smart person from the PBM industry who could make their lies believable. So far, fortunately, they’ve resisted that temptation.
2014 brought our highest visibility article, when it was still news that wellness loses money. Health Affairs published our seminal Workplace Wellness Produces No Savings. This was picked up by Michael Hiltzik, the business columnist at the Los Angeles Times, who added that wellness is a “scam.”
And it got picked up by the New York Times‘ health economics bloggers, who added the observation that Mr. Goetzel’s analysis was “crap.” (Their word, not mine.) Their specific first paragraph leading into our analysis:
We’ve said it before, many times and in many ways: workplace wellness programs don’t save money.
When Mr. Goetzel attempted to rebut our article, he interpreted that statement as these economists saying wellness “usually” doesn’t save money. Not sure where you get “usually doesn’t save money” out of the quotation above, but you know an industry is in trouble when its #1 promoter has to lie in its defense, but even the lie itself is quite unflattering.
The most comprehensive deconstruction was in July 2017, in Case Western Reserve’s Law-Medicine Journal, Health Matrix. It still ranks among their ten most popular articles of all time.
With 58 pages and 349 footnotes, it remains the go-to for health services researchers everywhere. If you can’t make the commitment to reading the entire thing, the executive summary says it all:
Wellness programs have conferred no measurable benefit on the American workforce.Further, vendors routinely disregard clinical guidelines that are designed to avoid overtreatment, inappropriate doctor visits, and increasingly ubiquitous crash-dieting contests. The economics follow the harms.
Essentially every dollar companies spend on vendor-administered workplace-wellness programs is lost. As a result, much of the wellness-vendor community has resorted to making demonstrably false claims about savings in order to maintain its revenue stream.
Why did wellness last so long?
As coincidence would have it, the Validation Institute wrote on that exact topic last month, explaining exactly how wellness, diabetes and other vendors fabricate their outcomes. It requires 7 installments to whack all of the moles, since while wellness and diabetes vendors may not know much about wellness and diabetes, they know a ton about fabricating outcomes.
They’ve figured out:
- their results should exclude low-risk (or low Hb a1c) members whose risk/scores increase
- participants will always outperform non-participants, “matched controls,” “propensity-scored matched controls” and basically every other passive cohort–especially if dropouts are ignored;
- drawing a line upwards (“trend inflation”) will give them the result they want by showing savings “vs. trend”
- no one actually ever reads these reports carefully to check their plausibility
- the highest ROI, for the vendor, is to bribe a consulting firm or journal to publish favorable results. Buyers will suspend disbelief when they see the words “actuaries” or “peer-reviewed”.
- they can inflate their own satisfaction scores by simply ignoring people who weren’t satisfied, instead of doing a real engagement survey, or simply citing Amazon. And no wonder — here are Livongo’s scores. (Livongo will no doubt swarm Amazon with five-star reviews once they realize other people are looking at these scores.)
The seventh installment covers how to put this all together into an RFP. Really there are two simple questions. You almost don’t need to ask any others. If it’s a carrier program:
“What is the penetration of this solution in your own insured (or in the case of large consulting firms, covered) population?”
If it’s vendor-direct:
“If we promote your solution to half our population and not the other half (which will have access, but not promotion), how much of your fees will you put at risk that the first half will outperform the second half in the key metrics you are addressing?”
In the case of the first, most programs offered by carriers to ASOs are not offered to fully insureds at all. In the case of the second, the answer is 100%.
So what to do instead of wellness?
It is possibly to achieve a much better result with much less effort and expense, simply by using Quizzify.
Breaking, shocking news: employees cheat in wellness programs
Do employees cheat in outcomes-based wellness programs? Of course not. Who would ever gain weight in order to be paid to lose it? That would be dishonest and unhealthy.
Haha, good one, Al.
Yes, obviously employees cheat in outcomes-based wellness programs and crash-dieting contests. But here are two things that aren’t so obvious:
- Cheating is far more widespread than employers would like to believe;
- This massive scale of cheating — two-thirds of all employees cheat in wellness — is well-known but suppressed by self-proclaimed “scientists” in the field, whose livelihoods would be in jeopardy if they acknowledged the scale of the cheating.
Cheating is widespread
How do we know this? Bloggers receive data from WordPress on hits for each post. Not just the number of hits, but the specific sources of the click-throughs — other bloggers or else “search engines.”
In any given week, the current posts and the home pages get the most hits. However, for the year as a whole, it’s a different picture. Take a looksee at our total hits for 2018:
Our typical blog post — not including home pages and related pages — gets about 2500 hits over the course of the year in which it is posted. But you’ll see that #3 on the 2018 list is: “How to cheat in a corporate weight-loss contest.” Almost every day that particular post racks up 15-25 hits, giving it 6388 for 2018. I used to assume that some other, more popular, blog was linking to it, but I can see linked blogs too on the Site Stats page, and there weren’t any.
Here are the 2019 stats through yesterday.. A new cycle of wellness programs and crash-dieting contests is about to start, so despite New Years week being a very slow week for TSW (like other HR blogs), that post is #1:
Further, even though these stats are 2018 and 2019, this blog was posted November 2016.`
What is driving this continuing popularity?
It turns out that the source of these click-throughs is indeed “search engines.” Seems that even though the target audience for this posting was the narrow HR/benefits community, employees themselves are googling on “cheating in wellness programs” and finding this post right on the first page of hits:
That also explains how we could get so many hits and yet so few comments and Facebook reposts. No one wants to be caught.
You might say: “That’s only 6,388 employees for a full year. The rest are honest.” Nice try, but consider:
- “Only 6,388 employees” clicked through despite noting from the first lines (as you can see) that this article really wasn’t a guide to cheating.
- This post is way down at the bottom of the front page.
- This was only a single year — 2018 — and the 2019 rate arithmetically projects to about 20,000 hits (though much of this posting’s hits are seasonal)
- The #2 source of click-throughs to this article is Slate’s masterful expose called Workplace Wellness Programs are a Sham, also on the first page of google hits above, which itself links to us–meaning that employees are also clicking through on that article in the same search.
- The 6,388 excludes the gazillion employees who don’t need to google anything in order to realize that the winning strategy in any outcomes-based wellness program or crash-dieting contest is to binge before the initial weigh-in and crash-diet before the final one — and of course lie on the risk assessment.
- The keywords that drive traffic to this site, according to Alexa? #3 — after Bravo and Wellsteps, two vendors who are “in the news” constantly — is “Healthywage Cheating.” Healthywage is the leading crash-dieting contest vendor.
The scale of cheating…and the suppression of the evidence by the wellness industry
Employees who don’t drink, smoke, use drugs, or occasionally indulge in foods other than broccoli and kelp have no need to cheat. They will also derive no benefit from wellness programs and employers will save no money on them, not even any make-believe savings that wellness vendors routinely claim. It is estimated that only 3% of people do everything right, health-wise. That mean the pool of potential cheaters is 97%.
How many of the potential cheaters are actually cheating? Review your own statistics yourself. 70% of employees drink, including 10% who drink more than 30 drinks a week. How many of your employees indicated on their HRA that they drink that much? Zero, you say? What a coincidence! That’s what all the other employer-administered HRAs conclude as well.
How many employees admitted drinking at all? If you said 20%, that would match the number claimed by Wellsteps for their award-winning program. That means slightly more than 2/3 of all drinkers — half your employees — are lying. Not because they’re inherently dishonest, but because you are basically asking them to lie in order to stay out of trouble. What kind of trouble? Wellsteps called consumption of any alcohol a “worst health behavior,” shaming employees who admitted to even occasional social drinking. Nonetheless they fully accepted as fact the 20% drinking rate statistic.
By encouraging all this lying, Wellsteps helped this employer, the Boise School District, create a culture of deceit instead of a culture of health. Kudos.
Now consider smoking. For that we turn to the industry’s leading source of alternative facts, Ron Goetzel. He “found” that for the years 2012-2014, 5.5% of his surveyed workers smoked, overlooking the statistical 12.3% of employees — roughly 2/3 of all smokers — who lied. Yet, like Wellsteps with the drinking, Mr. Goetzel presented this statistically impossible 5.5% as fact.
It’s not a coincidence that roughly the same proportion of smokers and drinkers lie. Nor is it a coincidence that these two “scientists,” as they call themselves, decided not to disclose the lies. Since they claim to be “among the most credible and conscientious scientists and practitioners working in corporate wellness today,” this is much more likely to be a deliberate omission than a rookie mistake, especially since I’ve informed them of this disparity and many other obvious misstatements many times and they usually just doubled down.
Admitting that their data is basically worthless means their entire conclusions are basically invalid, which in turn means that outcomes-based wellness itself is a fraud, which by the way it is
Lying to employers about personal behaviors is human nature. Most employees don’t want to disclose potentially damaging information, and think, quite justifiably, that if they give their employer 100% during working hours, their off-hours behavior is none of their employer’s business.
How can cheating in wellness be prevented?
For those two studies, Mr. Goetzel and Wellsteps were only encouraging employees to lie to their employers and cheat on the programs. The majority of employees responded predictably. By contrast, when you run an outcomes-based wellness program with large fines, or hold annual crash-dieting contests, you’re not just encouraging employees to lie and cheat. You’re practically begging your employees to lie and cheat. In crash-dieting contests, employees form teams, and strategize on how to binge and then crash-diet, allowing them to lose far more weight in 8-16 weeks than is healthy. Any team not intending to cheat wouldn’t even bother to compete. Teams that do want to compete will visit websites teaching them how to cheat, and which appetite suppressants and weight-loss pills to buy in order to win.
Wouldn’t it be great if there were a wellness vendor which, instead of denying human nature about cheating, channeled it? Instead of bragging about ferreting out “fraudulent participants,” made cheating part of the fun? There’s a word for that, and it’s not “impossible.” It’s “Quizzify.” Employees can rack up points for correct answers…and they are encouraged to look them up before selecting their response from the multiple-choice list. That way they are more likely to remember them.
And, unlike “how to cheat in wellness,” if you google on “How to cheat on Quizzify,” you won’t find any advice on cheating — other than Quizzify’s own rules urging employees to do exactly that.