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.
An HHS investigation months later showed that T’s employer got access to health data it had no right to see and the service manager, with a wink and a nod from the dealership’s finance office, fingered T as expendable. It was a nice bonus — literally — that T departure lowered the dealership’s medical costs both immediately and over the long term, which is what every wellness vendor promises.
This data breach story is fictional. But, it’s coming. In fact, it has likely already happened but the employee doesn’t know it and the employer isn’t about to admit it. The lack of personal data security in Americans’ lives goes much farther than what the government might know about who you call or email.
Identify theft in medical settings is long-time problem that health reform has not remedied. Hackers see hospitals as a rich trove of useful personal data, and they attack in no small part because hospital leaders are so clueless about exposure. Even state governments are unfortunately all too willing to sell what isn’t really theirs.
The exemplar for health privacy foolishness, however, is undoubtedly AOL’s Tim Armstrong and his disclosure about the babies of two employees and how much money their care cost AOL. We are quite sure that the Fei family did not ask for his broadcasting of their travails. To this volatile mix, employers have welcomed wellness vendors, who are proving all too quickly that people in industries built on deception will eventually do what you expect them to do, like leave data-laden flash drives laying around.
It is only a few small steps from foolish and inappropriate to potential civil and criminal liability, and enthusiastically adding wellness vendors to our health privacy turmoil was liking drilling new holes in a block of swiss cheese.
Employees should ask employers about wellness program particulars: who stores the data, how is it stored and where, who has access to it, can the vendor package and sell it, what will the employer do when the data is breached and how will the vendor be held accountable? In most cases, your employer will not know the answers and even express shock that you had the gall to ask.
To get at the crux of the wellness dilemma, first, refuse to join the program. (You can get a medical excuse from your physician.) Then, ask your employer why your company’s wellness strategy relies upon such intrusiveness.
Wouldn’t it be easier, cheaper, and more effective to help people do things joyfully and build cohesion on the team, like creating exercise opportunities, serving better food, and helping people manage work stress while maintaining the integrity of their personal space?
With all the stress inherent in the lives of employees today, how is it ‘wellness’ when you give people more to worry about?
Vik Khanna is Wellness Editor-At-Large for THCB, writes the KhannaOnHealthBlog, and is co-author with Al Lewis, of Surviving Workplace Wellness With Your Dignity, Finances and Major Organs Intact, the inaugural e-book of THCB Press.