Commentology: The Real Professor Baicker

flying cadeuciiInfluential RAND researcher Soren Mattke had this to say in support of Al Lewis and Vik Khanna’s latest post on the Wellness story “Would the Real Professor Katherine Baicker Please Stand Up?

“Gentlemen. Great post. Like you, I am disappointed that researchers of the caliber of Kate Baicker and David Cutler do not respond to the mounting debate about their paper. They should defend or disown their work rather than hope that the debate goes away.

In my mind, their paper is a product typical of high-end academic research. Two brilliant professors spot a gap in the evidence on a hot policy topic and decide to go after it. But the actual work gets done by a graduate student in his cubicle without windows or guidance, and then hastily published.

Then the problem arises that the paper becomes hugely influential and people start having a closer look. For our paper on the PepsiCo program, we reviewed in detail the seven publications that Baicker and colleagues called “high quality evidence”. We found that five of those analyzed programs that operated over 20 years ago and most of them had severe methodologic flaws. (John P. Caloyeras, Hangsheng Liu, Ellen Exum, Megan Broderick and Soeren Mattke. Managing Manifest Diseases, But Not Health Risks, Saved PepsiCo Money Over Seven Years. Health Affairs, 33, no.1 (2014):124-131)

Unfortunately, many defenders of the industry continue to take the Baicker paper at face value, while closely scrutinizing or ignoring more nuanced and scientifically sound findings.

So I herewith support your motion!

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Also don’t forget that EVERY SINGLE ONE of the studies in Baicker’s article was done at a time when you were allowed to talk to employees about family history. That is a major risk factor — the biggest, other than smoking — and is no longer accessible. Right there, the entire Baicker article is rendered useless as a predictor of future wellness results. (This of course is in addition to the rest of her junk science.)

Richard Young
Richard Young

The Baicker article that appeared in Health Affairs in 2010 entitled “Workplace Wellness Programs Can Generate Savings” categorized the workplace wellness literature into 3 levels of rigor. I took the studies in the most rigorous group and examined them closer. Here is what I concluded: Naydeck study The strength of this study is it presented cost data for all major health care categories, which all of the others don’t. One could quibble that it underestimated the cost of the wellness program by attributing the cost of the fitness center across all 10,000 employees, not just the 1,800 participants. As recognized… Read more »

Bryan Noar

Informative post that puts things in perspective – thanks! Seems like it’s time for the Wellness industry to let go of past old, flawed research and figure out how to gauge the impact of well-designed wellness programs on tough-to-measure factors like productivity and morale.


Wow! this should be mandatory reading for every workplace wellness professional and every business leader that has ever talked with one! – thanks – Jon

Al Lewis
Al Lewis

Just once — ONCE — I’d like to see a response from one of the true believers defending their position. When we do get a response, it’s always a non-response. You have noted that when caught in an impossible position, their response is always: “Oh, we really didn’t mean that. We meant something else altogether.” And lo and behold, that’s exactly what they do time after time when they do actually respond. Congressional hearings are long overdue. Workers are being harmed through overdiagnosis and overtreatment, money is passing under the table to brokers and consultants to pitch vendors, lies are… Read more »