Vik Khanna

Two weeks ago, Vik wrote a column for the The Health Care Blog on the now infamous meat-and-cheese study done by a team of researchers led by folks from USC. You can read the column, and the hilarious comments, here. I sent the column to one of the researchers, using the messaging available at LinkedIn. Here is that researcher’s response in its entirety:

I feel no need to get into a debate with someone who doesn’t understand basic statistics, how research is conducted, and has written a statement that is blatantly wrong. It does worry me that you are propagating yourself as an “expert” when you can’t seem to critically evaluate or understand a study. I know that this study is not perfect, hardly any are, especially in epidemiology, but the points you bring up in your blog are completely misconstrued and show very poor understanding of research methodology.

If you had actually read and understood the paper you would see that we controlled for waist circumstance [sic] and BMI. Also, this isn’t some random population of fat, low educated, American smokers, it is a nationally representative sample–unfortunately this is what the American population looks like. Finally, the idea that you think our supplemental tables house the real results illustrates your lack of understanding about statistics or how mortality models are run.

That being said, if you come up with a legitimate critique, I would be happy to engage in a friendly debate. When you attack something, I would suggest you make sure you understand it first, otherwise it is hard to legitimize anything else you say. I find it ironic that most of the push back from this paper has been from the general public who don’t have experience doing these types of studies, while for the most part, the scientific community (at least from people at R1 universities) has been fairly receptive.

We are glad to offer this legitimate critique, beginning with what we find in the very first sentence of the Results discussion that is not in the paper itself, but in the supplementary materials: “Using Cox Proportional Hazard Models, we found no association between protein consumption and either all-cause, CVD, or cancer mortality (Table S2).” Table S1 makes the point even more clearly: all-cause mortality in the low protein group was 42.9%. All-cause mortality in the high protein group was 42.9%, meaning that there is ZERO impact on overall mortality from protein variation at the extremes.

Continue reading “The Cheeseburger Study”

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Consider that for the last year or so, we have been treated a deluge of entreaties to reduce our salt intake, with the American Heart Association going so far as to claim that daily sodium intake should not exceed 1,500 mg. This puts it at odds with the Institute of Medicine, and now European researchers whose data indicates that the healthy range for sodium intake appears to be much higher.

Our conversation about  sodium, much like advice about purportedly evil saturated fats and supposedly beneficial polyunsaturated fats, exemplifies a national obsession with believing eating more or less of a one or a small number of nutrients is the path to nutritional nirvana.

A few weeks back, an international team of scientists did their level best to feed this sensationalistic beast by producing what’s become known since then as the meat-and-cheese study, because it damned consumption of animal proteins.

Continue reading “Cheeseburger Please, and Make It a Double”

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Al’s son once complained to Al’s Aunt Tillie about an overbearing supervisor.  Aunt Tillie suggested that he try to work under a different supervisor.  Tillie was one of those people – and we all know them – who could be counted on to inadvertently provide punchlines when needed.  Conversely, Al is one of those people – and we all know them – who can’t resist setting up those punchlines.  So I lamented that this suggestion may not work because, “Aunt Tillie, it’s a sobering fact that 50% of all supervisors are below average.”

Tillie replied, “I blame our educational system for that.”

Likewise, we may need to blame our educational system for Keas’ new poll on workplace stress.  To begin with, the lead paragraph from Keas — which like many other companies is “the market leader” in wellness – “reveals” that “4 in 10 employees experience above-average stress.”

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – (Apr 2, 2014) – Keas (www.keas.com), the market leader in employer health and engagement programs, today released new survey data, revealing four in ten employees experience above average levels of job-related stress. Keas is bringing attention to these findings to kick off Stress Awareness Month, and is also providing additional insight and tips to bring greater awareness to the role of stress in the workplace and its impact on employee health.

Wouldn’t that mean some other employees – mathematically, also 6 in 10 – must be experiencing average or below-average levels of stress?   It would seem like mathematically that would have to be the case.   However, the Keas poll also “reveals” that while some employees are average in stress, no employee is below-average – a true paradox.  Hence Keas’ selfless reasons for publishing this poll:  All employees being either average or above average in the stress department means we have a major stress epidemic on our hands.  This perhaps explains why Keas is “bringing attention to these findings.”

In a further paradox, Keas also uses the words “average” and “normal” as synonyms, even though they are often antonyms:  All of us want our children to be normal but who amongst us wants their children to be average?

Continue reading “Keas Poll on Workplace Stress and Disease Burden Provides an Education”

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flying cadeuciiRecently, The Health Care Blog published a post by Robert Sutton asking why there were so many jerks in medicine.

That posting made the underlying assumption that being a jerk is a bad thing.  In response, we are posting today a defense — really more an explanation of the features and benefits — of jerkdom, at least in our segment of healthcare, wellness and outcomes measurement.

In 1976 an obscure graduate student named Laura Ulrich (now a Pulitzer Prize-winning professor) wrote: “History is seldom made by well-behaved women.”   That statement could be applied much more broadly.  In any field governed by voluntary consensus – especially where the consensus specifically and financially benefits the people making the consensus – radical change does not happen jerklessly.

The best current example might be the critique of Choosing Wisely in the New England Journal of Medicine in which it was pointed out that only three specialty societies blacklisted controversial procedures still performed in significant enough quantity to affect that specialty’s economics.

(Another example of financially fueled consensus gone awry is the RUC, also frequently and justifiably excoriated in The Health Care Blog and elsewhere.)

Specifically, there are three reasons we act like jerks.   (Four reasons if you include selling our book, but we acted like jerks well before our book came out.)

First, as Upton Sinclair said, “You can’t prove something to someone whose salary depends on believing the opposite.” Hence, making nice rarely works and may backfire when you are pointing out a total waste that  also happens to be someone else’s income.

After Community Care of North Carolina (CCNC) sponsored an outcomes study  by Mercer finding massive savings through their patient-centered medical home (PCMH) in an age cohort (children under one year of age) in which no utilization reduction took place and which, as luck would have it, was not enrolled in the PCMH anyway, we kindly wrote to them and offered to show them the error of their ways, privately.

We didn’t get a response.  We repeated the offer when they put out another RFP for even more validation, pointing out that using the HCUP database meant no RFP was needed — we would be able to give them an answer in less time than it would take them to evaluate the RFP responses, and save them close to $500,000 in taxpayer money too.

Continue reading “Why Are Al Lewis and Vik Khanna Such Jerks?”

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Since 2000, the government and healthcare industry have sold Americans a bill of goods called workplace wellness, which turns out to have been a colossal waste of billions of dollars.

Most of this money was spent bribing employees to do things that they don’t want to do, such as submit to biometrics, answer intrusive health risk appraisals, and get preventive medical care.

The marketing pitch that wellness makes people healthier and lowers medical care costs, and thus, produces a return on investment for the employer, isn’t true. Wellness also allowed companies to position themselves as employee-friendly, even while wages stagnated and employees morphed into fungible widgets, instead of vital assets in whom employers invested for years or decades.

However, it looks to us as though at least one major US company is treating economic reality seriously, and, consequently, asking its employees to act like adults.

Let’s look at wellness by Amazon.com, which has apparently avoided conventional wellness whole cloth. Despite our best research efforts, we find no evidence that the company makes conventional wellness programming a priority for employees.

It’s a bit ironic that they don’t given the recent spate of tough publicity about the company’s employment practices.

Amazon has been lambasted lately for the plight of the warehouse workers who animate its backroom operation, where constant video surveillance, productivity demands, and getting your bag searched before you go home are the norms. Message boards also detail the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the company’s white collar space, which raises, in our minds, the pointed question of why haven’t they done wellness?

We think it’s because Amazon’s philosophy about work is straightforward: if you work here, expectations are high and relentless. Amazon’s approach to employee well-being seems to be to not have one other than we invite you to grow with us. This is counter-cultural, and it has more to recommend it than first appears obvious.

When you are competing against Walmart and Target, remaining lean and low-cost is critical; wellness drives costs up, not down.

Expecting many staff to work 50, 60, or even 70 hours per week leaves little time for discretionary visits to the doctor that are pointless even before they happen because this superfluous care will save neither lives nor money. When you are not pouring money into coercing employees to join a wellness program, you preserve capital needed to optimize the technologies and product mix that help you grab market share and crush competitors like Best Buy.

Continue reading “Amazon Shows the Way on Wellness — Treat People like Adults”

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T was never a star service tech at the auto dealership where he worked for more than a decade. If you lined up all the techs, he wouldn’t stand out: medium height, late-middle age, pudgy, he was as middle-of-the-pack as a guy could get.

He was exactly the type of employee that his employer’s wellness vendor said was their ideal customer. They could fix him.

A genial sort, T thought nothing of sitting with a “health coach” to have his blood pressure and blood taken, get weighed, and then use the coach’s notebook computer to answer, for the first time in his life, a health risk appraisal.

He found many of the questions oddly personal: how much did he drink, how often did he have (unprotected) sex, did he use sleeping pills or pain relievers, was he depressed, did he have many friends, did he drive faster than the speed limit? But, not wanting to rock the boat, and anxious to the $100/month bonus that came with being in the wellness program, he coughed up this personal information.

The feedback T got, in the form of a letter sent to both his home and his company mailbox, was that he should lose weight, lower his cholesterol and blood pressure, and keep an eye on his blood sugar. Then, came the perfect storm that T never saw developing.

His dealership started cutting employees a month later. In the blink of an eye, a decade of service ended with a “thanks, it’s been nice to know you” letter and a few months of severance.

T found the timing of dismissal to be strangely coincidental with the incentivized disclosure of his health information.

Continue reading “What If Your Employer Gets Access to Your Medical Records?”

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We’ve seen shorter abstracts, and we’ve seen abstracts with more curious findings, but we’ve never seen a shorter abstract with more curious findings than this one, done by Dignity Health and Dr. Rajan Merchant, and financed by the California Healthcare Foundation, evaluating a gadget made by Propeller Health.

The study group’s use of inpatient care for asthma declined by a whopping 62% vs. the control group.  You might think this result violates Dr. John Ioannidis’ well-known conclusion that large treatment effects are usually wrong, but you’d be mistaken.  You see, there was no treatment here.

There was only an effect.  Dr. Ioannidis’ result applies only to actual comparisons of effects due to different treatments, not to random changes in effects using the same treatment.  In this study, the actual treatment protocol was the same and the inhalers were the same.

The only thing different was frequency of drug use.  Whereas the conventional wisdom for disease management states that hospitalizations can be avoided by more adherence and hence more drug use, in this case the study group used less medication than the control group, reaching for their rescue inhalers 25% less– once every 6.3 days vs. every 4.7 days for the control group.

Continue reading “Meet Propeller Health: Digital Health’s Poster Child for Invalid Savings Reporting”

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THCB is excited to announce the first official e-book release from THCB Press, “Surviving Workplace Wellness” by contrarian Wellness industry observers Al Lewis and Vik Khanna.”  What exactly is the “Wellness industry” anyway? How scientific is the “science” behind wellness programs? Are stop-smoking programs a good idea? Should your company really be paying to send employees to the gym?

Should you be using technology to help your employees monitor and understand their health? You may not always agree with the authors (we certainly don’t here at THCB world headquarters, where Al and Vik have started more than a few food fights) but we still think you’ll find this title a provocative examination of many of the fundamental assumptions underlying prevention and wellness today.

You can order your digital copy from Amazon.com here at the discounted price of $9.99.  If you’re a healthcare insider trying to understand the controversies facing wellness or a conscientious wellness professional trying to get a handle on developing a program that works for your employees, this is the e-book for you.

Be sure to look out for upcoming releases from THCB Press in the months to come.  If you’d like to be placed on the THCB Press mailing list to be notified of upcoming new releases, send us an email with “update me” in the subject line.  Author inquiries and partnership requests should go to this same address.John Irvine

Continue reading “Good News! A Workplace Wellness Vendor Saying You’re Sick Means You’re Probably Healthy”

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The ever-blurring line between the practice of medicine and the business of profiting from unhealthy lifestyles was crossed again Wednesday, as Aetna announced a collaboration with two pharmaceutical companies to pitch their prescription weight loss drugs to selected Aetna members.

This announcement crosses multiple lines, not just one. First, no insurer has ever announced that it would openly direct a specific class of members to use particular proprietary drugs. Disease management (DM) programs rarely recommend specific drugs, and certainly in the exceptionally rare instances when they do, the recommendations are not specific brand-name drugs (in this case, Arena’s Belviq and Vivus’s Qsymia).

Instead, DM focuses on improving compliance with existing drug regimens, and DM firms encourage members “talk to their doctor” about changing therapies. While DM companies shy away from directing patients to specific products, physicians and pharmacists have discretion to discuss the full range of covered generic and brand products with patients, in order to optimize therapy and close algorithm-identified care gaps.

Second, there are no generally accepted care algorithms (other than those created by the manufacturers of those products) for these two drugs in the treatment of obesity. So there is no “gap” to fill. If there were an accepted protocol, these drugs might be blockbusters but instead Belviq’s recent quarterly sales were an anemic $4.8-million, “well below even reduced Wall Street expectations,” while QSymia sales are “flailing” at $6.4-million for the same period.

Obese people and their physicians seem to be avoiding these drugs in droves. Regardless of what Aetna and the manufacturers believe about their effectiveness, or whatever promotional deal they’ve cut, market reaction is telling a different story, and unfortunately for Aetna, Vivus, and Arena we live in a market economy.

Continue reading “Dr. Aetna Will See You Now”

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For those of us who actually think wellness outcomes should be evidence-based, a landmark study was released today:  the first evidence provided by a major organization voluntarily (as opposed to being outed by us, like British Petroleum and Nebraska) that wellness doesn’t work.   January’s Health Affairs features a case study of PepsiCo, authored by RAND Wellness Referee Soeren Mattke and others, in which a major wellness program was shown to fall far short of breaking even.

The specific highlights of the PepsiCo study are as follows:

  • Disease management alone was highly impactful, with an ROI of almost 4-to-1;
  • Wellness alone was a money sink, with each dollar invested returning only $0.48 in savings;
  • The wellness savings were attributed to an alleged reduction in absenteeism, as self-reported by participants.  There was no measurable reduction in health spending due to wellness.

Even though the wellness ROI was far underwater, we suspect that the ROI was nonetheless dramatically overstated, for several reasons.  First, the authors acknowledge underestimating the likely costs of these programs, focusing only on the vendor fees without considering lost work time, program staff expense and false positives.  Second, no matter how hard one tries to “match” participants with non-participants (the wellness industry’s most utilized measurement scheme), it simply isn’t possible to compare mindsets of the two groups.  We learned from one of Health Fitness Corporation’s many missteps that participants always outperform non-participants, simply because they are more motivated.  Third, the absenteeism reductions were self-reported, by participants.

Finally, PepsiCo’s human resources department, having made the mistake of accepting Mercer’s advice to implement one of these programs, was already taking some political risk by acknowledging failure.  Had they incorporated the adverse morale impact, lost productivity due to workers fretting about false positives, Mercer fees and staff costs, participant bias, and self-reporting bias, the ROI could easily have turned negative (meaning the program would have been a loser even if the vendor had given it away) and the HR staff could have been taking serious career risk.

Continue reading “PepsiCo’s Wellness Program Falls Flat”

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Matthew Holt
Founder & Publisher

John Irvine
Executive Editor

Jonathan Halvorson
Editor

Alex Epstein
Director of Digital Media

Munia Mitra, MD
Chief Medical Officer

Vikram Khanna
Editor-At-Large, Wellness

Joe Flower
Contributing Editor

Michael Millenson
Contributing Editor

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