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If there is one thing the US healthcare system is really really good at, it’s rooting out hidden disease via massive hyperdiagnostic screening campaigns. But there is always room for “improvement” by finding some unsuspecting cohort — in this case, 45-year-olds — that was getting just a little too complacent about the fact that virtually no one that age dies of something that could have been found — and also prevented or addressed — via a non-USPSTF-recommended screen.
Serves them right.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) recently decided that, because the rate of colon cancer has been increasing in the 45-to-49-year old cohort, that screenings should start in that age group. The “alarming” 22% increase in relative risk during this century translates into an increase in the absolute rate of colon cancer in the <50 cohort from 0.006% to 0.007%. Yes–0.001% more of the <50 population in this country will get colon cancer now than 18 years ago. I’m surprised they didn’t recommend calling out the National Guard.
Further, many of that 0.007% experienced symptoms, and hence would be getting a colonoscopy as a diagnostic test, not a screen. And others in that age grouping had a family history and should get screened regardless of what the “average” person should do. Suppose those two categories account for half of the colon cancer population. That leaves roughly 0.0035% of the 45-to-49-year-old population who could possibly benefit from a screen.
As with the other “alarming” colon cancer figures that have been published in the last few years, your chances of having your life saved by a colon cancer screening at that age is about the same as your chances of being struck by lightning.
And a screen is far from a lifesaver in general. Quite the contrary, statistically speaking it is likely to find the slow-growing tumors while missing the more aggressive, faster-growing tumors that begin between screens.
The Hazards of Screening
That trivial benefit must be weighed against the nontrivial harms. The risk of a complication, such as a perforation, is estimated between 1.6% and 1.8%. (In all fairness to the ACS, they aren’t insisting that the screen be done via a colonoscopy, though the non-invasive screens have such high positive/inconclusive test rates that they often lead to colonoscopies.)
Unless I have the decimal point in the wrong place, that means the rate of complications is a whopping 320 times the likelihood of something being found. Oh, wait a sec — make that 3200 times.
OF course, the worst complication is death, and the mortality rate from colonoscopies (0.02%) appears to be, on its face, much higher than the rate of lives that would be saved. However, once again, though it kills me to say it, in all fairness the mortality rate, and for that matter the complication rate, increases with advancing age, meaning the younger you are, the less likely you are to die from this screening. So maybe the mortality rate in the 45-50-year-old cohort isn’t any higher than — and might even be slightly lower than — the rate at which early detection will save lives. I feel much better knowing this. Don’t you?
And what is it about colon cancer that brings out people’s inner very stable genius? Here is the Cleveland Clinic on the subject:
Newsflash: 144,000 is not “1 out of 19 people in the United States.” It is barely 1 out of 19 people in greater Cleveland.
The best argument against screening 45-year-olds
Nonetheless, when it comes to screening 45-year-olds for colon cancer, the best argument against it is that Star Wellness is for it. By way of background, Star Wellness is best known in wellness for not knowing anything about wellness. They take great pride in that, boasting that anyone can become a wellness vendor. All you need, they say, is a background in “sales or municipality administration,” five days of training…and of course a certified $65,000 check payable to — get ready — Star Wellness. No surprise that Star was leading the wellness industry’s race to the bottom until they got outstupided by Total Wellness, Interactive Health, and Wellsteps.
But Star Wellness is not willing to lose this race to the bottom without a fight.
Not content to offer the full range of USPSTF non-recommended screens, they are practically hyperventilating over this opportunity to add yet another one. They use the example of ovarian cancer screening to justify more colon screening. Here is the USPSTF on the subject of ovarian cancer screening:
The USPSTF found adequate evidence that screening for ovarian cancer can result in important harms, including many false-positive results, which can lead to unnecessary surgical interventions in women who do not have cancer. Depending on the type of screening test used, the magnitude of harm ranges from moderate to substantial and reflects the risk for unnecessary diagnostic surgery.
While we’re on the subject of Star Wellness…
Star, Vitamin B12 is not a vaccine.
And remind me why we are lining up employees to get Vitamin B-12 shots, vaccines or no vaccines?
While we’re on the subject of vaccines, according to the CDC, the biggest category of people who are supposed to get Hepatitis A/B vaccines include street drug users. If you are routinely hiring enough street drug users to be holding vaccination clinics focused on Hepatitis A/B, I’d say Vitamin B-12 deficiencies are not your biggest problem.
In the spirit of Festivus, we reprise four of the funniest vendors we’ve highlighted in 2015 that you might have overlooked. In more ways than one, these vendors didn’t get as many hits as they deserved:
- Vivify Brings Incompetence to Life.
- Keas Meets Lake Wobegone: All Employees Are Above Average (in Stress)
- Star Wellness Illuminates the Health Hazards of Wellness
and just to be fair and balanced…
Seasons Greetings from all (both) of us here at They Said What?
When Thomas Edison said: “We don’t know a millionth of 1% about anything,” he wasn’t talking about the wellness industry, because wellness vendors aren’t that knowledgeable. And much of what they “know” is harmful.
Smoking and exercise aside, taking wellness vendors’ advice 10 years ago — during the time wellness was somehow allegedly racking up its famously fictitious 3.27-to-1 ROI by making employees healthier– would have been a very bad idea. PSA tests, annual mammograms for younger women, colonoscopies at 5-year intervals, and EKGs were perfect examples of must-to-avoid screens, even if it meant leaving incentives on the table.
And yet even though most wellness vendors (Star Wellness, Bravo Wellness Total Wellness, HealthFair Services and Aetna being notable exceptions) won’t harm employees as much as they did 10 years ago, a lot of mythology still causes a lot of harm today, albeit more subtly.
Myth: “We need to ‘do wellness’ because 75% of our healthcare cost is due to preventable chronic disease.” (Ron Goetzel, in our recent debate, boosted this figure to 80% for reasons unknown.)
Fact: Have ya looked at your high utilizers and other expenses? We-can-prevent-75%-of-cost-due-to-chronic-disease is the biggest urban legend in healthcare. We’ve done multiple articles on it — there are too many fallacies to squeeze in here. Though it’s just arithmetic, this is the most harmful fallacy of all, because by causing employers to obsess with overprevention, it spins off all the other fallacies below.
Myth: “Reducing our employees’ BMIs will save money.”
Fact: The actual science is far more nuanced. Some people have high BMIs because they are healthy. And belly fat — even at “normal” weights — is riskier than all but the highest BMIs. Further, attaching money to weight loss between weigh-ins creates a binge/crash-diet cycle that is decidedly unhealthy.
Myth: “Corporate weight loss programs save money.”
Fact: No corporate weight loss program has ever saved money. They don’t reduce BMIs, BMIs are the wrong measure (see above), and the link between reducing BMIs and saving money is nonexistent.
Myth: “Screening our employees will be good for their health.”
Fact: Annual screenings are a bad idea for the majority of employees. The head of Optum’s wellness operations, Seth Serxner, just acknowledged this inconvenient truth last week. (He somehow shifted the blame to employers, for stupidly spending too much money on Optum and other vendors. That’s a topic for another post.) The US Preventive Services Task Force has a schedule of screenings that essentially no wellness vendor follows. Because so few biometric screens are recommended for working-age adults by the card-carrying grownups who comprise the USPSTF, following USPSTF guidelines would bankrupt the industry.
Myth: “Screening guidelines balance costs and benefits so at worst we’ll break even.”
Fact: Screening guidelines balance harms and benefits, not costs and benefits. The subtlety of the distinction would be lost on most wellness vendors, but it is important. (1) Unless screens are provided free, an employer will lose money even on a screening program done according to guidelines; (2) you are not doing your employees any favors by providing screening “greater than” guidelines, like the Health Fitness Corporation/Nebraska program did. You are simply raising the likelihood of harm.
Myth: “Annual checkups will keep our employees healthy.”
Fact: For wellness vendors, the annual checkup has almost mystical power. Bravo’s CEO Jim Pshock loudly credits checkups with preventing cancer. Wellness vendor bloviating aside, the science is quite settled: employees are more likely to be harmed than benefited by annual checkups.
Myth: “Our employees need to eat healthier.”
Fact: OK, there is a, uh, grain of truth here. Many people have bad diets–fried food, sugar etc. But beyond eating less fried food and sugar, the science remains unsettled. Salt, saturated fat, complex carbohydrates…all in the realm of not completely settled. What is true and remarkably overlooked is the epidemiological rule of thumb that if an impact is major, it shows up in small samples. 86 cases were needed to link lung cancer to smoking. And a famous study of 523 veterans proved very high blood pressure causes strokes. Yet after tons of controlled and observational studies — even comparing countries to one another — we still haven’t found “the answer.” That means “the answer,” whatever it is, won’t matter much in the workplace. So you’re wasting your time trying to get employees to “eat right.”
We could keep going — antioxidants are more likely to cause cancer than prevent it. Sitting is not the new smoking. And drinking eight glasses of water a day is good for you only in that you’ll get more exercise going to and from the restroom.
The biggest myth of all? Wellness vendors actually do anything of value, other than make up savings figures to show your CFO so you look good. Or as my colleague Vik Khanna says: “Love your employees. Fire your wellness vendor.”
Now that the myth that there is any ROI in wellness is thoroughly both debunked and also even acknowledged by the wellness industry, vendors often fall back on the “argument” that nothing else in healthcare needs an ROI. Why should workplace wellness be singled out? The editor of the American Journal of Health Promotion, Michael O’Donnell, even asked: “Who cares about an ROI anyway?”
The answer to Michael’s question? Everyone should care. And everyone should insist on an ROI from wellness, for three distinct reasons. Each reason is sufficient on its own. So even if there were a fallacy in two of the reasons (and there isn’t), the remaining reason would still be definitive.
First, consider an employee with appendicitis. You don’t calculate an ROI. You call an ambulance. But suppose a vendor says to you: “If an employee’s appendix bursts, the cost could be $100,000. So we propose taking out everyone’s appendix preventively.”
You’d ask: “What’s the rate of burst appendixes and how much do appendectomies cost?” While that’s an extreme example (and we didn’t mean to give these people any ideas), this is basically the calculation you should make when vendors propose screens. Here’s how to do the calculation. You’ll be shocked at how much it costs to avoid even one event by screening everyone.
Second, wellness is the only thing in healthcare that employees are forced to do, subject to a financial forfeiture of penalties or lost incentives. Other activities which people are penalized for not doing include: wearing helmets/life jackets/seat belts and getting kids vaccinated. In each case, the clinical evidence/science overwhelms considerations of personal choice. (Even then, in some states personal choice still rules.)
By contrast, the only thing that’s overwhelming about wellness evidence/science is how overwhelmingly the evidence eviscerates wellness, which of course is what this site is all about. Unfortunately, wellness vendors don’t understand evidence — or for that matter healthcare itself. Many vendors have no knowledge of basics like clinical guidelines, or even arithmetic. One wonders how they can do their jobs as wellness vendors without understanding healthcare. And that brings us to the third reason that wellness (unlike healthcare) needs an ROI, which is…
…Wellness isn’t healthcare. Quite literally every other provider of physical healthcare–from heart surgeons to acupuncturists–needs to train, pass a test, get a license, take continuing education, and be subject to review by an oversight board. Not wellness vendors. You can become a wellness vendor for $67,000. “Up to” eight days of classroom and on-the-job-training are also included in that $67,000. (To put that in perspective, Four Seasons housekeepers get ten days of training.) The vendor that offers these franchises, Star Wellness, brags about how no healthcare background is needed to be a wellness vendor. A background in “sales or municipal administration” is perfectly sufficient.
So if you’re wondering why wellness vendors know so little about wellness, there’s your answer: they aren’t required to know anything about wellness. Knowing just a little exceeds the minimum requirement.
To conclude, here is our advice to workplace wellness vendors trying to justify what popular healthcare blogger Paul Levy calls the “wellness tax“: shut up and just be happy you still get to collect it, and that the authorities haven’t shut you down. (A doctor doing all this overscreening and billing for it would have been shut down.)
Don’t try to justify your hyperdiagnostic jihad on the basis of ROI or any other purpose other than enriching your bank accounts. Every time you try, you provide yet another reason why whatever college gave you a degree in anything other than advanced idiocy should lose its accreditation.
Anyone care to become a wellness vendor? Good news: you can buy a wellness franchise from Star Wellness without knowing a single thing about healthcare…
…as long as you have your checkbook handy.
They do, however, recommend a background in sales, finance, or municipal administration.
The other good news — for you salespeople, financiers, or city managers — is that Star Wellness will teach you everything you need to know about wellness:
Yes, in five days you too can learn everything that Star Wellness knows, like how to ignore USPSTF guidelines, which is one category in which Star leads the industry. (One place they lag is reading comprehension, since we have already pointed out that most of what they propose is more likely to harm employees than benefit them…and yet they continue to advertise these hazardous screens.)
In addition to “up to” 5 days in the classroom, franchisees also get 3 days of on-the job training. So in case anyone is keeping score at home:
- Training required to get a job as a wellness vendor: 8 days
- Training required to get a job as a housekeeper at the Four Seasons: 10 days
This intensive training has captured the attention of WELCOA, which has named Star a Premier Provider:
WELCOA has very high standards, as we have noted on They Said What. One thing they excel at is spelling the name of their founder, assuming their founder invented the all-you-can-eat self-service restaurant.
A commitment to excellence, like that displayed by Star Wellness and WELCOA, might explain why employers have gone all-in on the notion that teaching employees, for example, to drink eight glasses of water a day will reduce healthcare costs, and also increase productivity, at least between trips to the water coolers and the rest rooms.
You’d learn far more than the typical wellness vendor knows about wellness simply by taking the Quizzify quiz. You’d learn more just by taking the demo quiz on the landing page.
Heck, you’d learn more just by reading the Quizzify landing page itself.