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Upcoming webinar: Is is time for a wellness reboot?
Facts are the wellness industry’s kryptonite.
How do we know this?
Last month you may have seen ads from the Health Enhancement Research Organization for something called The JAMA Wellness Study: A Balanced Discussion.
Unfortunately for anyone who for whatever reason dialed into this session, that’s an hour you’ll never get back. Balancing fact and fiction in a webinar leads to curious results. For instance, here’s what would you’d learn by attending a “balanced” webinar on astronomy:
- Ptolemy: The sun revolves around the earth.
- Copernicus: The earth revolves around the sun.
- Balance: The earth revolves halfway around the sun and the sun revolves halfway around the earth.
And that’s exactly what happened here. Instead of actually presenting factual information, as in their very own candid albeit subsequently retracted foray into integrity, HERO wrote:
Hundreds of research studies published in scientific journals conclude that well designed, evidence based, comprehensive health and well-being initiatives work. We know this, yet occasionally, a new study is published that is inconsistent with the overall body of research.
The only thing more tortured than the grammar of that passage are the logic and the facts. Logically, math and science are not popularity contests. It wouldn’t matter if “hundreds of research studies” say the opposite, if indeed the opposite is wrong as a matter of arithmetic proof.
In any event, there are not “hundreds of research studies” showing “evidence-based” wellness programs work, for the simple reason that (along with the math) the “evidence basis” goes exactly the other way.
- The US Preventive Services Task Force and Choosing Wisely recommend against screening the stuffing out of employees, based on the evidence (“tests and screenings can cause problems”);
- You can’t pay people to lose weight any more than you can pay people to cure disease. Obviously if financial incentives were all it took to lose weight, Oprah Winfrey would be Size 2 by now. Quite the contrary, outcomes-based wellness that by definition requires paying people to lose weight, or fining them if they don’t, causes binge-eating and crash-dieting…and has seriously harmed employees with eating disorders;
- The last 5 winners of the wellness industry’s C. Everett Koop Award lost money–and in the most recent case of Wellsteps, harmed employees;
- The last 12 studies published have shown huge losses.
Having seen this webinar promoted, I thought it would be a good idea to enlist some card-carrying grownups to do a fact-based webinar as a counterpoint to a webinar balancing fact and fiction.
One of the original entries in my Rolodex (and that’s how far back we go) for card-carrying grownups would be the Pittsburgh Business Group on Health. PBGH is hosting a webinar on this very topic (meaning wellness) on July 9th. It will present actual facts about wellness outcomes. In that sense it will be the first webinar of its kind following the release of the JAMA study. Entitled Wellness: Is It Time for a Reboot, the registration link is here.
One fact all parties can agree on, unfortunately, is that this webinar will set you back $25. (There are a few friend-of-Al promo codes available.)
“And so, Little Miss Minnow, the wolf ate the big bad outcomes-based wellness vendor, and all the employees lived happily ever after.”
Warning: Workplace Wellness Can Be Hazardous to Your Health
Sometimes we bring up the many ways in which conventional outcomes-based “pry, poke and prod” wellness programs harm employees. For the first time, we are putting all those harms in one place, a hand clip-and-save guide for journalists, regulators, and legislators.
This series now includes three. First is The Outcomes, Economics and Ethics of the Workplace Wellness Industry. The good news about this one is its exhaustive comprehensiveness in covering the industry’s misdeeds, garnished with 400 linkable footnotes. The bad news is it was published more than 9 months ago, too soon to capture the most recent swarm of misdeeds. For example, it predated Interactive Health’s scorched-earth screening program, designed to leave no employee undiagnosed. (This is literal — according to their own data roughly a quarter of employees discover “new conditions” every year. So in 4 years, every employee, on average, gets one new condition.)
The next was an expose of the economics of wellness, a compelling, fully sourced and linked proof that the whole pry, poke and prod endeavor served no economic purpose beyond enriching pry, poke, and prod vendors. (Screening according to guidelines, should a vendor ever choose to do it even though it would require sacrificing two-thirds of revenues in the name of integrity, would be exempted from this conclusion.) That’s because there is no chance that vendors “playing doctor” at work saves money.
Confucius observed that an mistake that remains uncorrected after being pointed out becomes a lie. Using that definition, two-thirds of the wellness industry –– including the Koop Award Committee and the Health Enhancement Research Organization — is lying, as they are fully aware that their very stable economic genius fantasies are nothing more than the stuff dreams are made of. That also explains why the $3 million reward for showing wellness is not an epic fail remains unclaimed.
The Hazards of Workplace Wellness
This whole thing would be hilarious were it not for all the harms and hazards of workplace wellness visited on employees who are forced to choose between, as Judge Bates noted in his epic decision in AARP v. EEOC, paying two months’ rent or forfeiting that sum by submitting to needles wielded by unlicensed, unregulated and unsupervised wellness vendors. Employees should never be forced into clearly unhealthy situations at work, at least without the hazards being disclosed, and yet, today’s American Journal of Managed Care posting covers six hazards employees face as they navigate the shoals of workplace wellness:
- Actual, well-documented, harms to an exposed population
- First-person case studies and reports
- Crash-dieting-for-money risks
- Flouting of established clinical guidelines
- “Hyperdiagnosis” leading to unneeded medical care
- Incorrect or potentially harmful advice that employees are told to take
All of this is covered in one place this month — and is totally worth the read.
Not if you don’t have a license, aren’t required to understand what you are doing, and can force employees to harm themselves or lose money
Wellness trade association (HERO) throws itself under the bus
In wellness, there is a saying that you don’t have to challenge the data to invalidate it. You merely have to read the data. It will invalidate itself.
Now that adage can be extended to cover the May “position paper” published by the Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO). HERO manages to invalidate its own position even though they didn’t actually take a position in this “position paper” to invalidate. They didn’t even present any data…and yet their data was wrong.
All they said was “critically examine research.” Then they provided four paragraphs which showed why doing precisely that invalidates everything they’ve ever published. See for yourself with each paragraph header.
I agree totally — except with the grammar, English being right up there with arithmetic, logic, statistics, and ethics as being courses that HERO’s staff have struggled with. There has not been a single study in the last five years showing wellness saves money. Sometimes, the studies say explicitly that wellness failed, as the National Bureau of Economic Research did, with Medicare close behind. Or Pepsico. Or the state of Connecticut, which, having thrown away millions on inappropriate screenings and doctor visits, declared that losing money was “a good thing.”
Other times, you have to actually read the study to realize that wellness loses money, as in every Koop Award-winning example in the last six years through 2016, like this one and this one and this one and this one and this one and this one. Why not 2017? Because in 2017, they couldn’t even find a study that pretended to save money.
HERO has painted itself into a corner here too, because if a study ever does come out that alleges wellness saves money, critics would simply note that it is important to be skeptical of a claim from a single study refuting all the others. Apparently Prof. Baicker is working on a new paper, having found the arguably the most stable genius vendor in the wellness industry to support what are likely to be claims of savings high enough to support her own previous claims of savings, but low enough so they won’t immediately self-invalidate upon exposure to sunlight. And let us not forget that her original conclusions were publicly invalidated, by name, by her own subordinate. Is this is a great country or what?
The HERO position paper complains that:
Media criticism is sometimes based on programs that are not evidence-based, are poorly implemented, or are incorporated into unsupportive environments.
Hmm… so every time a study comes out showing wellness loses money, it’s because the program was done badly? This list of losers apparently includes the aforementioned Pepsico, whose program was so bad they won two Koop Awards.
During my debate with Ron Goetzel, a number of questions from the audience complained that their own company’s wellness program was horrible. Ron’s stock response: your company needs a better program. He reserved particular animus for the Penn State program, which he himself decried as “horrible,” even though he was the prime architect. In another instance he blamed the questioner for being a bad employee.
Since employees dislike being pried, poked and prodded, “unsupportive environments” would include every company, according to WillisTowersWatson. That means the only companies with “best practice” programs would be wellness vendors themselves, like Vitality Group, where, as a wellness vendor, they curated and implemented only the finest wellness interventions available to mankind. Oh, wait a sec, I goofed. That program failed miserably. Shame on their own bad employees!
Vitality Group is in good company. As Mr. Goetzel says, thousands of programs are done badly while only 100 have succeeded.
“Best practices” might include adhering to US Preventive Services Task Force guidelines, not demonizing social drinking, avoiding harms to employees with eating disorders, and not telling people to do stupid things. I’d settle for a program that does any one of those things.
How much time do they need? 3 years? 6 years? They need more? Sure — here is 14 years‘ worth of results for the entire US, showing virtually nothing has happened. The “wellness-exposed” and “wellness-non-exposed” <65 populations are virtually coincident, with only Medicare — where, by definition, there is no workplace wellness — showing a little improvement. It’s all spelled out here.
This paragraph is supposed to be a subtle diss of the NBER paper, which in the 4 months subsequent to publication, the very stable geniuses at HERO have not mentioned by name to avoid drawing attention to it due to its obvious quality and validity. (Welcome to my world.) True enough that the NBER paper covered only one year, though the authors added there was absolutely nothing “trending towards savings” to suggest that the second year would be any different.
The irony of course is that almost every one of those Koop Award-winning programs did claim first-year savings. So first year savings are obtainable, except when they aren’t.
Confirmation bias? HERO is a thesaurus-level paean to confirmation bias. Look at a typical study, and all you will see is citations to studies by their colleagues. Not one study in the wellness trade association’s journal (whose prevaricator-in-chief Paul Terry, also runs HERO) has ever cited me in all of its history, whereas this single article by me cites various members of the Wellness Ignorati 115 times. Not one study in the history of that journal has ever found wellness loses money. At least deliberately. Just like Perry Mason lost one case that was overturned on appeal, that journal accidentally found “randomized control trials exhibit negative ROIs,” but then devoted an editorial in the next issue to overturning their previous conclusion.
Here is HERO’s exact language on confirmation bias:
Confirmation bias is the tendency of researchers to draw inferences from their study that align with their preexisting beliefs but are not well supported by their data.
This is, of course, is how the Wellness Ignorati got their name — deliberately ignoring the overwhelmingly conclusive data that undermines their revenue stream. Examples are legion but my favorite is Larry Chapman breathlessly propagandizing a study that he interpreted as aligning with his preexisting belief that health risk assessments save 50% (“they should be treated like a beloved pet”). Alas, he made the mistake of also providing the actual data, which naturally not only can’t be interpreted to show 50% savings, but also can’t even be misinterpreted to show 50% savings. Or any savings, for that matter.
Larry, one question for you:
NY Times’ economists and Pulitzer Prizewinning LA Times columnist skewer “voluntary” wellness incentives
UPDATE: There is a Q&A informational webinar on the new wellness ruling, hosted by BusinessSolver, January 18 at 10 AM EST.
In the immortal words of the great philosopher Dizzy Dean, don’t fail to miss it.
Ever since Ron Goetzel’s Penn State debacle, the news cycle has been the Health Enhancement Research Organization’s (HERO) kryptonite.
To be sure, they have other enemies too — transparency, integrity, math, data, facts, employees, smart people — but those bullets just bounce off them. How do we know this? We think we’re making an impact with our exposes and whistleblowing — and yet forced, incompetent and sometimes harmful prying, poking and prodding continues unabated. When we prove that none of the wellness numbers add up and back that proof with a monster reward for disproving us, they retreat rather than fight — but then they pop up again, whack-a-mole style with yet another claim: “Oh, well, numbers don’t have to add up. It’s all about the value.” Yada yada yada.
That’s why they never respond to anything we ever write, or for that matter anything anyone else ever writes. STATNews, for example, wanted to host a point-counterpoint, but couldn’t find anybody to oppose me. Health News Review posted a podcast with no opposing views.
The one wellness executive who failed to understand the news-cycle-as-kryptonite dynamic was Wellsteps’ Steve Aldana, not exactly a rocket scientist even by the standards of the wellness industry. In an attempt to get his name in the paper, he accidentally admitted that all of Boise’s Koop Award-winning numbers were fabricated. Yes, he humiliated himself, yes, he admitted he lied, yes, he could easily have been charged with defrauding the city…and yet Boise is still Wellsteps’ account.
If they had any lingering doubt, that lesson taught the rest of these people to stay out of the media even if it means taking a few punches.
That brings us to today. I’ve been scouring Google to find someone — anyone — to take the side of the EEOC in what is likely to become an extended news cycle over the definition of “voluntary” for wellness programs. So far, no one has stepped forward to support the EEOC’s and HERO’s argument that “voluntary” can mean “we’ll fine you up to $2000 if you don’t.” Instead, both The Incidental Economist (the NY Times‘ economics bloggers) and the LA Times‘ Pulitzer Prize-winning business columnist, Michael Hiltzik, come down strongly on the side of AARP, Merriam-Webster, Funk & Wagnalls and Dictionary.com.
Los Angeles Times, Michael Hiltzik
- In 2015, the EEOC proposed a rule treating wellness programs as “voluntary” if they involved premium differences of no more than 30% of the full cost of a health plan. Worker advocates were aghast — 30% of a full-price premium could amount to thousands of dollars, and since the workers’ share of their health plan premiums often was only 30% or so, the penalty could double their annual costs. For many families, that made voluntary programs effectively mandatory.
- [The judge] observed that the 30% incentive “is the equivalent of several months’ food for the average family, two months of child care in most states, and roughly two months’ rent.” He recognized that a fee of that magnitude could be especially coercive to lower-income employees
- The biggest problem with wellness programs is there’s no evidence that they work. The most frequently cited statistic in their favor came from Safeway, whose claim to have saved on per capita healthcare costs after implementing a wellness program prompted drafters of the Affordable Care Act to liberalize the incentive rules. But Safeway’s story was soon debunked. Other supposed success stories came from wellness program promoters themselves, who were engaged in selling their wares to big employers.
- The rule allowed employers to impose huge penalties on employees who refused to participate in wellness programs, even though the Americans with Disabilities Act says those programs must be “voluntary.”
- In the court’s view, the EEOC had basically ignored the problem in its rulemaking, asserting without explanation that wellness programs backed by enormous penalties were somehow voluntary. I applauded the decision: I’ve been railing against the EEOC for two years now for blessing mandatory wellness programs over the ADA’s express prohibition.
Once again, I’d urge everyone to sign up for the January 18 webinar. There will be more clarity, you can ask questions, and you’ll hear questions from others too. What you won’t hear is a peep out of HERO. Not because we censor or blacklist adversaries (that’s their signature move, not ours — one person reports that HERO took him off the program because he admitted to respecting my work) but because they know better than to, in the immortal words of the great philosopher John Cusack, say anything.
Final installment: 3 more stories of wellness shame and harms
Included in this concluding batch is yet another wellness program debacle regarding eating disorders. The irony is, this one takes place at an addiction facility. I’ve always maintained that, along with facts, integrity, math, data, employees and me, another thing the wellness industry has no appreciation of is irony. Examples:
- The most recent Koop Award for the best wellness program went to Wellsteps, who according to their own data made employees worse;
- Vitality pitches its weight-loss program even though by their own admission they couldn’t get their own employees to lose weight;
- The wellness industry’s own trade association, whose job is to show wellness saves money and improves morale inadvertently admitted that wellness loses money and damages employee morale.
This final set of case studies concludes with a statement from an actual named, LCSW who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders.
Links to previous installments:
- Part 1: Recovering executive with anorexia nervosa begs not to be weighed…DENIED
- Part 2: Recovering technologist with bulimia told to “fit into his skinny jeans”
- Part 3: Recovering employee with anorexia nervosa told “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” and advised to eat only half her lunch.
- Part 4: Recovering employee with bulimia and a severe grain allergy penalized for eating too many natural fats, as correctly prescribed by her dietitian…and begins purging again.
The school where I work recently instituted a wellness program. In order for our insurance premiums to not increase, we had to go through a series of tests: total cholesterol, blood pressure, BMI, LDL cholesterol and fasting glucose. If we did not “pass” 4 out of 5 of these biometric screenings, we had to go through six weeks of phone therapy and then have the screenings done again after that time.
If, after the six weeks of phone therapy, the results did not change, our insurance would go up about $50.00/month.
The whole experience was a nightmare. They conducted the screenings in the music room at school, with different tables and stations set up. About 10 or 12 teachers and staff members were in the room at one time, so there was little privacy.
We moved from one station to the next as each of our results was written down and passed to the next person.
When we got to the end, a wellness “counselor” went over our results. The lady saw my triglycerides number and immediately asked, “Does diabetes run in your family?” “Is obesity an issue in your family?” I asked why. She said that a high level of triglycerides means that the body has “too many fat cells” and that I am at an “increased risk.”
To someone who has struggled with an eating disorder, as I have, this was tantamount to saying “Because of your high triglycerides, you are fat. You are obese.”
Being weighed is always a humiliating and shameful experience for me, as it is for many people with eating disorders, and it can trigger exacerbations of my disorder (treating professionals familiar with eating disorders are well aware of this phenomenon and structure treatment accordingly). To have to be weighed in front of my peers made that experience even worse.
This biometric screening triggered my disorder. I was in tears by the time I got to the last “counselor” and had a very hard time controlling my feelings. Right after this, I needed to get into my classroom and be with my kids. I had to “suck it up,” until the end of the day.
It was horrible and it makes me wonder what is in our future in regard to all of this.
My workplace, an addiction treatment facility, has an employee “wellness” program.
If employees want to obtain the insurance “wellness rate” (the lower of two rates available to employees), we are required to start every year in January with a “health fair” and a “know your numbers screen” where they check weight, blood pressure, glucose levels and cholesterol. Then we are “advised” by a registered nurse to exercise more and eat less (as if that had never occurred to anyone previously).
This year, the medical assistant drawing my blood engaged in numerous behaviors that would trigger most people with an eating disorder. She informed me she “used to be as big as” I am until she “got bypass surgery.” Despite mentioning several times that I see a nutritionist who recommends that I not weigh myself or know my weight, I was asked to guess my weight before I stepped on the scale. I turned around when I stepped on the scale to avoid seeing my weight, but the assistant nonetheless chattered on about my weight.
I was reminded of embarrassing weigh-ins with school nurses and weight loss programs before I was exposed to eating disorder recovery.
This year we are also assigned to a “wellness team” where everyone is supposed to wear pedometers every day and log their steps weekly on a website. Everyone can see everyone else’s steps on the site and a competitive spirit is encouraged.
I am especially saddened and concerned that we have this potentially damaging environment that encourages obsession with weight and numbers in a facility that treats addiction, where one would hope we would be steered away from, rather than toward, the process of addiction to disordered eating.
I have worked with hundreds of patients over the 13 years during which I have worked with people with eating disorders. In the past two years, I have seen a number of patients who were quite negatively impacted by the wellness programs at their place of work.
In one instance, a patient with binge eating disorder reported that she would be financially penalized if she didn’t set weight loss as a goal and make progress toward this goal. However, this was in direct conflict with her treatment goals to stabilize eating and set any goals for weight loss aside. This patient could see how focusing on weight loss increased her binge eating; however, she felt shame and anxiety as a result of these pressures put on her by her employer. She did not feel that as a larger-sized person she could speak up about this injustice.
In another instance, a patient reported that her employer required her to complete a health screening or be charged $600.00, and when she didn’t meet the health targets she was given an opportunity to still get the monetary “rewards” by meeting with a dietician three times. She was also informed that she could get a “Healthy Weight Improvement Reward” by losing five pounds since her last health screening. Again, this is a patient with binge eating disorder whose condition is destabilized by focusing on weight loss. She too felt that as a larger-sized person she could not speak up about how this program could cause her harm.
Next week, and with the help of others, we will ask, what does this all mean? What can be done to prevent or discourage wellness vendors from harming employees?
And once again, kudos to the good guys, the vendors who are not implicated in this series at all, and indeed would never do such things to people:
American Institute of Preventive Medicine, Health Advocate, HealthCheck360, It Starts with Me, Limeade, Redbrick, SelfHelpWorks, Sterling, Sonic Boom, Sustainable Health Index, US Health Centers, US Preventive Medicine
Interactive Health doubles down on diagnoses (Part 1)
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.
Wellness Vendors Dream the Impossible Dream
Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said. “One can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Six impossible things before breakfast? The wellness industry would just be getting warmed up by believing six impossible things before breakfast. They believe enough impossible things all day long to support an entire restaurant chain:
Consider the article in the current issue of BenefitsPro — forwarded to me by many members of the Welligentsia — entitled: “Can the Wellness Industry Live Up to Its Promises?” BenefitsPro rounded up some of the leaders of the wellness industry alt-stupid segment. Specifically, they interviewed US Corporate Wellness, Fitbit, Staywell, and HERO. Each is a perennial candidate for the Deplorables Awards — except US Corporate Wellness, which already secured its place in the Deplorables Hall of Fame (and Why Nobody Believes the Numbers) several years ago with these three paeans to the gods of impossibility.
In case you can’t read the key statistic — the first bullet point — it says: “Wellness program participants are 230% less likely to utilize EIB (extended illness benefit) than non-participants.” Here is some news for the Einsteins at US Corporate Wellness: You can’t be 230% less likely to do anything than anybody. For instance, even you, despite your best efforts in these three examples, can’t be 230% less likely to have a triple-digit IQ than the rest of us. Here’s a rule of math for you: a number can only be reduced by 100%. Rules of math tend to be strictly enforced, even in wellness. So the good news is, even in the worst-case scenario, you’re only 100% less likely to have a triple-digit IQ than the rest of us.
And yet, if it were possible to be 230% dumber than the rest of us, you might be. For instance, US Corporate Wellness also brought us this estimate of the massive annual savings that can be obtained just by, Seinfeld-style, doing nothing:
So assume I spent about $3500/year in healthcare 12 years ago, which is probably accurate. My modifiable risk factors were zero then and they are still zero — no increase. So my healthcare spending should have fallen by $350/year for 12 years, or $4200 since then. But that would be impossible, since I could only reduce my spending by $3500. Do you see how that works now?
To his credit, US Corporate Wellness’s CEO, Brad Cooper, is quoted in this article as saying: “Unfortunately some in the industry have exaggerated the savings numbers.” You think?
I’m pretty sure this next one is impossible too. I say “pretty sure” because I’ve never been able to quite decipher it, English being right up there with math as two subjects which apparently frustrated many a wellness vendor’s fifth grade teacher:
400% of what? Is US Corporate Wellness saying that, as compared to employees with a chronic disease like hypertension, employees who take their blood pressure pills are 400% more productive? Meaning that if they controlled their blood pressure, waiters could serve 400% more tables, doctors could see 400% more patients, pilots could fly planes 400% faster? Teachers could teach 400% more kids? Customer service recordings could tell us our calls are 400% more important to them?
Or maybe wellness vendors could make 400% more impossible claims. That would explain this BenefitsPro article.
We have been completely unable to get Fitbit to speak, but BenefitsPro couldn’t get them to shut up. Here is Fitbit’s Amy McDonough: “Measurement of a wellness program is an important part of the planning process.” Indeed it is! It’s vitally important to plan on how to fabricate impossible outcomes to measure, when in reality your product may even lead to weight gain. Here is one thing we know is impossible: you can’t achieve a 58% reduction in healthcare expenses through behavior change — especially if (as in the 133 patients they tracked in one of their studies) behavior didn’t actually change.
You can read about that gem, and others, in our recent Fitbit series here:
- Springbuk wants employees to go to the bathroom
- Fitbit throws a bit of a fit, Part 1
- Fitbit throws a bit of a fit, Part 2
Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO) and Staywell
I’ll consider these two outfits together because people seem to bounce back and forth between them. Jessica Grossmeier is one such person. Jessica became the Neil Armstrong of impossible wellness outcomes way back in 2013. Not just any old impossible wellness outcomes — those have been around for decades. She and Staywell pioneered the concept of claiming outcomes they already knew were impossible. While at Staywell, she and her co-conspirators told British Petroleum they had saved about $17,000 per risk factor reduced. So, yes, according to Staywell, anyone who temporarily lost a little weight saved BP $17,000 — enough to clean up about 1000 gallons of oil spilled from Deepwater Horizon.
See British Petroleum’s Wellness Program Is Spewing Invalidity for the details.
Leave aside both the obvious impossibility of this claim, and also the mathematical impossibility of this claim given that employers only actually spend about $6000/person on healthcare. Jessica’s breakthrough was to also ignore the fact that this $17,000/risk factor savings figure exceeds by 100 times what her very own article claims in savings. Not by 100 percent. By 100 times.
Fast-forward to her new role at HERO. In this article she says:
The conversation has thus shifted from a focus on ROI alone to a broader value proposition that includes both the tangible and intangible benefits of improved worker health and well-being.
Her memory may have failed her here too because HERO — in addition to admitting that wellness loses money (which explains its “shift” from the “focus on ROI alone”) — also listed the “broader value proposition” elements of their pry-poke-and-prod wellness programs. The problem is the elements of the broader value proposition of screening the stuffing out of employees aren’t “benefits.” They’re costs, and lots of them:
When she says: “The conversation has shifted from a focus on ROI alone,” she means: “We all got caught making up ROIs so we need to make up a new metric.” RAND’s Soeren Mattke predicted this new spin three years ago, observing that every time the wellness industry makes claims and they get debunked, they simply make a new set of claims, and then they get debunked, and then the whole process repeats with new claims, whack-a-mole fashion, ad infinitum. Here is his specific quote:
“The industry went in with promises of 3 to 1 and 6 to 1 based on health care savings alone – then research came out that said that’s not true. Then they said: “OK, we are cost neutral.” Now, research says maybe not even cost neutral. So now they say: “But is really about productivity, which we can’t really measure but it’s an enormous return.”
While other vendors, such as Wellsteps, harm plenty of employees, Interactive Health holds the distinction of being the only wellness vendor to actually harm me. I went to a screening of theirs. In order to increase my productivity, they stretched out my calves. Indeed, I could feel my productivity soaring — until one of them went into spasm. I doubt anyone has missed this story but in case anyone has…
They also hold the distinction of being the first vendor (actually their consultant) to try to bribe me to stop pointing out how impossible their outcomes were. They were upset because I profiled them in the Wall Street Journal . The article is behind a paywall, so you probably can’t see it. Here’s the spoiler: they allegedly saved a whopping $53,000 for every risk factor reduced. In your face, Staywell!
Here is the BenefitsPro article’s quote from Interactive Health’s Jared Smith:
“There are many wellness vendors out there that claim to show ROI,” he says. “However, many of their models and methodologies are complex, based upon assumptions that do not provide sufficient quantitative evidence to substantiate their claims.”
Finally, here is a news flash for Interactive Health: sitting is not the new smoking. If anything is the “new smoking,” it’s opioid addiction, which has reached epidemic proportions in the workforce while being totally, utterly, completely, negligently, mind-blowingly, Sergeant Shultz-ily, ignored by Interactive Health and the rest of the wellness industry.
There is nothing funny about opioid addiction and the wellness industry’s failure to address it, a topic for a future blog post. The only impossibility is that it is impossible to believe that an entire industry charged with what Jessica Grossmeier calls “worker health and well-being” could have allowed this to happen. Alas, happen it did.
And, as you can see from the time-stamp on this post, except at establishments favored by the Wellness Ignorati, breakfast hasn’t even been served yet.
And the Envelope Please. The Best Outcomes Evaluator in Wellness Is…*
*Among the subset of males not affiliated with They Said What.
Alert readers may recall that my New Year’s resolution was to balance my negative postings about the wellness industry with positive ones. Like Diogenes searching for an honest man, I thought the finding the latter would be hard, but just as Romy Antoine also did earlier this month, The subject of this posting — to be named in Part Two — makes that easy. Part One sets the stage for the review of his study.
By way of background, in preparation for bringing a possible lawsuit, I re-read the famous Chapter 2 of the equally famous HERO report. That was the chapter which inspired Ron Goetzel, Seth Serxner and Paul Terry (who was recently anointed as the American Journal of Health Promotion’s new Fabricator-in-Chief) to circulate their defamatory letter about me to the media, in a singularly self-immolating attempt to discourage them from publishing my material. They insisted that Chapter 2 was pure fabricated nonsense, rather than a carefully analyzed report of real data. Here is an excerpt from their actual letter, copies of which are available from me but which is summarized here:
A fabricated…absurd, mischievous and potentially harmful misrepresentation of our data.
Ron said it best in our Great Debate, minute 1:17 in the MP3 downloadable here:
Those numbers are wildly off…every number in that chapter has nothing to do with reality.
However, the sun rises in the east, taxes are due April 15th, and Ron Goetzel is lying. Quite the contrary, Chapter 2 turns out to be a carefully analyzed report of real data — almost certainly the best case study ever published.
How did I learn that Ron was fabricating a story that his guidebook had fabricated a story?
- This chapter says it’s a real report, on p. 22.
- Since this chapter’s analysis was so far above the pay grade of those three aforementioned HERO characters, I checked the acknowledgements in the HERO book. Sure enough, none of the HERO cabal wrote it. Someone else (to be named in the next posting) was the lead author, and I called to congratulate him on it. I also asked him some background questions, one of which proved very revealing. It turns out that…
- This real analysis of real data was — get ready — reviewed prior to publication by the exact same people who are disowning it now. Yes, among the people who peer-reviewed it prior to publication were the very same Ron Goetzel, Seth Serxner, and Paul Terry. (In addition to them doing the actual review, the lead author, very graciously sharing the credit, wanted to make sure that I indicate that he was only the “organizer and visible author of a team effort.”)
Yes, as is so often the case with these three, they lied about the lies that they lied about. It’s quite ironic that their argument against my original praise of this analysis was to insist that because my source was their own lies, my own analysis was unreliable. These lies above don’t include the actual lies I might sue them about, which were lies about me, which are totally separate from their lies about their previous lies. (Their lie about me was that I had a history of outrageously inaccurate statements, none of which they have ever been able to identify.)
These characters aren’t ordinary run-of-the mill alternative fact-type liars. They’re way beyond that.
Their lies go to 11.
So many candidates for the Deplorables Award countdown, so few numbers between 1 and 10
Having covered the also-rans last week, here are the first runners-up, as we inch ever closer to the coveted top spot. (To read the original postings, click on the numbered headers.)
Today we are highlighting more people and organizations who’ve made the wellness industry what it is. Wednesday we will complete the listing of the Stars of Wellness, the people and organizations who are making the industry what it should be.
Interactive Health conducted what may be the head-scratchingest screen in wellness industry, a difficult feat given all the competition. For starters, they tested me for calf tightness. It turns out my calves are tight–and right on-site they loosened them. I could feel my productivity soaring…until the left one went into spasm that night and I couldn’t get back to sleep. Still, I can see their point — loose calves are a useful trait for many common jobs.
Next, Interactive Health shattered the record, previously shared by Total Wellness and Star Wellness, for most USPSTF non-recommended blood tests. I don’t know what half these things are, which means neither does Interactive Health.
Where would a Deplorables Greatest Hits List be without the Koop Award Committee?
Every year, like clockwork, the industry’s biggest liars select the industry’s biggest lies. 2016 started with last year’s winning program, McKesson’s, being exposed as a joke in Employee Benefit News, and ended with this year’s winner, Wellsteps, being exposed as a joke in STATNews.
When bestowing this year’s award to their fellow Committee member, Wellsteps, they didn’t even pretend not to lie. And what lies they were! Not just regular-sized lies. Not even supersized lies. We’re talking lies that would make a thesaurus-writer blush.
To put their lies in perspective, I may not even know you, but if a Koop Committee member told me the sky was blue, and you told me the sky was green, I’d at least go look out the window.
PS Not everyone on the Committee is a liar. One person is quite honest and can’t believe what goes on every year. I don’t want to name my source because in Koop-land, honesty is grounds for termination. As is getting validation. Or adopting the Code of Conduct. Basically ethical behavior is off-limits. An executive of one group, Altarum, published a blog critical of wellness and <poof> the Committee disappeared them.
Michael O’Donnell seems to crave my attention. When he managed to go three whole months without being featured in a TSW posting, he came up with these irresistible nuggets:
- “Wellness is indeed the best thing since sliced bread, up there with vaccines, sanitation and antibiotics.”
- “[Wellness] can prevent 80% of all diseases.”
- “The ROI from wellness is very strong.”
- “Workplace health promotion may play a critical role in preserving civilization as we know it.”
If nothing else, Mr. O’Donnell presents the best argument for requiring educational standards, or at least a GED, in this field — by demonstrating his total lack of understanding not just of wellness, but also of vaccines, sanitation, antibiotics, percentages, diseases, ROIs, and preserving civilization as we know it.
Oh, yes, and multiplication as well. His article on how to increase productivity with wellness used an example demonstrating a productivity decrease. In 2016, he also went on an anti-employee jihad that should be read in its entirety. (Translation: some of my best work…) Highlights:
- Prospective new hires should be subjected to an intrusive physical exam, and hired only if they are in good shape. OK, not every single prospective new hire — only those applying for “blue collar jobs or jobs that require excessive walking, standing, or even sitting.” Hence he would waive the physical exam requirement for mattress-tester, prostitute, or Koop Committee member–because those jobs require only excessive lying.
- He would “set the standard for BMI at the level where medical costs are lowest.” Since people with very low BMIs incur higher costs than people with middling BMIs, Mr. O’Donnell would fine not only people who weigh more than his ideal, but also employees with anorexia.
If employees didn’t already have an eating disorder, what better way of giving them one — and hence extracting more penalties from them — than to levy fines based on their weight? Employees above his ideal weight would pay per pound, sort of like if they were ordering lobster or mailing packages.
#2: Ron Goetzel, Seth Serxner, and Paul Terry (Health Enhancement Research Organization)
These three characters — naturally also on the Koop Committee — managed to pile more lies, sardine-like, into a single page than anyone else in this industry, in the “poison pen” about me they circulated to the media.
A good starting question would be, why on earth would anyone think that they can send a “confidential” letter to the media? The media are in the business of disseminating information. You see, that’s why they call them “the media.” Am I going too fast for you, Mr. Goetzel?
The funny thing about these Einsteins? Their defense to my observation that their very own numbers show wellness loses money was that their very own numbers were made up. Imagine being so dishonest that the way you defend yourselves is by claiming you fabricated your own report.
That’s not even the punchline. It turns out that this allegedly fabricated report is in truth an actual non-fabricated report. So, in the immortal words of the great philosopher LL Cool J, they lied about the lies that they lied about.
How did I learn this? That will be the subject of a post early year.
Watch this space…soon we will be naming the industry’s #1 Deplorable of 2016.
The Great Debate, Part 5: Ron Goetzel “endorses” me…by mistake.
We are now in Ron’s wheelhouse, which is publishing peer-reviewed articles in third-tier wellness trade journals. Let’s see how he does.
For those who are new to this thread, Part 4 is here, and links to earlier installments. The recording is here. Time stamps roughly synch up.
Ron says he is a researcher, and publishes in peer-reviewed journals. He “applauds” me again for giving them the “opportunity” to correct their many errors, and says the comments I make are often “right on the money.”
It is indeed a creative use of the word “opportunity,” as in: “Last year the IRS gave me the opportunity to be subject to an audit.”
He says “that’s what the scientific method is all about, having peer reviewers critique your work and find problems.” And yet, I’ve never, ever been asked to peer review anything that he and his cronies have ever published. Go figure.
He would like “us” (meaning him and his cronies) to be able to review my work, even though I’m not allowed to peer-review theirs. He says he has “never seen an article by Al Lewis…to review.”
Hmmm…perhaps his internet is down?
Since all my work is right on this site (including links to other work, in “In the News” to Health Affairs, Harvard Business Review etc.) he is free to review it anytime, and we publish all comments. There isn’t really any need to for him to look at our material because mostly it’s his own and his cronies’ material. And you know the mantra from Surviving Workplace Wellness: “In wellness, you don’t have to challenge the data to invalidate it. You merely have to read the data. It will invalidate itself.”
As in his opening remarks and in his “secret” letter to the media, he once again criticizes my stuff as being “out there…outlandish,” but gives zero examples.
Ron, in the process of saying something he knows not to be true for a change, accidentally endorses me.
“Ron, would you say I am the most qualified person in peer review in terms of finding the most mistakes?”
“Well, who has found more mistakes than I have?”
[Silence and nervous laughter from the audience.]
I point out that — despite his tacit endorsement just now that I am the best peer reviewer — none of his friends’ wellness trade journals have ever asked me to peer review anything.
And he still refuses to say why he hasn’t claimed the million-dollar reward.
Peer reviewed or not, numbers need to add up, and Ron’s don’t. In one award-winning example, Eastman Chemical, $900/person in savings was shown — with risk factors changing by only 0.17 per person, excluding dropouts.
Ron did not rebut this. Eastman was one of the two Koop Award applications he had doctored when it turned out the applicant had accidentally told the truth but no one on the award committee noticed.
Ron has already run away from most of the industry’s claims, as earlier installments of this debate have observed. Now is he running away from Wellsteps’ Steve Aldana, whom he has co-presented and co-authored with and who naturally is on his Koop Award committee. Aldana recently wrote that I was “sick” because a colleague posted my Harvard Business Review article on his linkedin group and asked what people thought of it.
[2016 Update: Ron is now embracing Steve Aldana and Wellsteps, the first company to admit to harming employees.]
Ron is turning his blacklisting of me into my “plea” to do peer review in his trade journals. I have never “pled” to do peer review in his trade journals, which are mostly useful as punchlines. I merely observe that I’ve never been asked. “You’re very good at calling out mistakes, but you’re not very good at publishing your own research studies.”
He then cites the Johnson & Johnson study (that’s the same Johnson & Johnson that just proposed the Fat Tax). That is the only study he’s ever done that I’ve not been able to invalidate on its face, so he gets his first point of this round here. Not because the study is valid. There wasn’t enough data in it for me to automatically prove that it was invalid, which is a very high standard, but that’s my standard–“face invalidity.”
So there you have it: one company in the entire universe that might possibly have saved money on wellness. And as coincidence would have it, they also sell wellness services. No publication bias there…
November 4, 2016 Update: I just found this J&J study. It is even worse than the others. Employees lying on HRAs, trivial risk reductions…and of course massive savings. It appears that all they did was increase the deductible and then give employees $500 to do wellness, thus shifting the money out of the healthspend into the incentives account, which is not included in the “savings.”
I point out that even though I’m apparently not qualified enough to peer review for his friends who run low-impact journals, I do get called upon to peer review for Health Affairs and other high-impact journals. And most importantly, while I’ve done only two peer-reviewed articles, one led to the dismantling of the North Carolina Medicaid medical home. The other was #1 for 2015 in the American Journal of Managed Care and continues to be cited widely. My award-winning book was peer-reviewed by some of healthcare’s leading figures: Stuart Altman, James Prochaska, Tom Scully, Leah Binder, Bob Galvin, Regina Herzlinger, and Nortin Hadler (the same Nortin Hadler who apologized for poor peer review by one of Ron’s favorite trade journals).
Most importantly, speaking of peer review, Quizzify is the only population health company that may publicly say “our content is reviewed by doctors at Harvard Medical School.”
Ron — whose entire industry loses money and can’t even guarantee not losing money — is now lecturing me on Quizzify’s guarantee of savings and how it needs to be peer-reviewed. I was not expecting to be attacked for offering an incredible, unique, value proposition, so I didn’t have a good answer. Only in wellness is saving money for customers considered a bad idea.
He continues to harp on peer review by his friends-and-relations, but I won the round with one simple observation: “We are not here today because of Ron’s peer-reviewed articles. We are here today because of my non-peer-reviewed articles.”
I could fill a blog with all the nonsense that Ron’s friends who run so-called “peer-reviewed journals” have published. Come to think of it, I have. Examples:
AJHP’s proposal to tie insurance premiums to weight, like ordering lobster or mailing packages
AJHP’s proposal to use wellness to dramatically reduce productivity
JOEM’s Aetna debacle
JOEM’s failure to understand how to do stock price analysis
AJHP’s “Randomized control trials show negative ROIs.” (I didn’t have to post anything here–this spoke for itself.)
JOEM’s fabricated evidence of savings