A controversial study published earlier this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that overweight people have significantly lower mortality risk than normal weight individuals, and slightly obese people have the same mortality risk as normal weight individuals.
This meta-analysis, headed by statistician Katherine Flegal, Ph.D., at the National Center for Health Statistics, looked at almost 100 studies that included 3 million people and over 270,000 deaths. They concluded that while overweight and slightly obese appears protective against early mortality, those with a body mass index (BMI) over 35 have a clear increase in risk of early death. The conclusions of this meta-analysis are consistent with other observations of lower mortality among overweight and moderately obese patients.
Many public health practitioners are concerned with the ways these findings are being presented to the public. Virginia Hughes in Nature explains “some public-health experts fear…that people could take that message as a general endorsement of weight gain.” Health practitioners are understandably in disagreement how best to translate these findings into policy, bringing up the utility of BMI in assessing risk in the first place.
Walter Willett, chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, told National Public Radio that “this study is really a pile of rubbish, and no one should waste their time reading it.” He argues that weight and BMI remain only one measure of health risk, and that practitioners need to look at the individual’s habits and lifestyle taken as a whole.
The late Dr. C. Everett Koop was the most revered Surgeon General in history, perhaps even the most revered Cabinet member. His calling card—indeed, his claim to fame – was his integrity. A Reagan appointee, he acted as though he reported to no one other than the American people and his own conscience. His penchant for candor and scientific independence fueled the federal government’s groundbreaking steps to raise public awareness about HIV/AIDS at a time when the tendency was to demonize and diminish. He resisted incessant political pressure and refused to take positions or produce data that he knew to be false.
This drew strong support from both sides of the aisle, and even his detractors never questioned his honesty. (Exhibit A: The two authors of this posting, whose political views have little else in common other than respect for strong, independent-minded politicians.)
Dr. Koop’s legacy stands in sharp contrast to the eponymous award dispensed by The Health Project, whose committee members have turned their back on their founder. The last thing Dr. Koop would have expected is to see is *his* award bestowed upon people who know that they don’t deserve it. The 2012 award was given to three recipients for work done in Nebraska: a vendor that claims wellness programs don’t even have to exist to save money, an outfit that can’t even spell the name of its own founder, and a state employee benefits plan that is under investigation for sky-high administrative costs.
Among the extravagant statements that formed the basis for the award (like claiming more than $20,000 in savings for every person who reduced their risk factors for a year, even though per-person spending is only $6,000), they claimed to have made 514 “life-saving catches” on employees with otherwise undetected cancer. This data was obviously wrong to begin with — that cancer rate would have been at least 40 times greater than Love Canal’s. Nonetheless, it sure sounded good, and the Governor of Nebraska himself was all-in too, so an award was issued.
I am known in the disease management and wellness fields as a naysayer, critic, curmudgeon, and/or traitor…and those are only the nouns that are allowed to be blogged across state lines. This is because I am driven not by wishful thinking but rather by data. The data usually goes the wrong way, and all I do is write down what happened. Then the vendors blame me for being negative — sort of like blaming the thermometer because the room is too hot — because they can’t execute a program.
However, the nonprofit Iowa Chronic Care Consortium (ICCC) apparently can execute a program. They reduced total diabetes events by 6% in the rural counties they targeted. This success supports a hypothesis that in rural (presumably underserved) areas, disease management fulfills a critical clinical gap: it provides enough basic support that otherwise would not be provided even to those who actively seek it to reduce near-term complications and exacerbations.
This result will likely produce its own unanticipated consequence: because many people now believe (thanks, ironically, to some of my own past work) that disease management doesn’t produce savings, there will be widespread skepticism about the validity of this study. Quite the opposite: this “natural experiment” is as close to pristine as one could hope for in population health, for five reasons:
There was no participation/self-selection bias because outcomes were measured on all Iowa Medicaid members.
The program was offered in some Iowa counties but not others, so there was no eligibility or benefits design bias, Medicaid being a statewide program.
The program encompassed only one chronic condition (diabetes) rather than all five common chronic conditions normally managed together (asthma, CAD, CHF, and COPD being the other four). Since all five conditions were tracked concurrently, whatever confounders affected the event rate in one of those conditions should have affected all of them. And event rates in the four other conditions did indeed move together in both the control and study counties. Just not diabetes.
The data was collected exactly the same manner by the same (unaffiliated) analysts using exactly the same database so there is no inter-rater reliability issue.
Both groups contained hundreds of thousands of person-years and thousands of events.
As one who has reviewed another high-profile “natural experiment,” North Carolina Medicaid, and found that the financial outcomes were the reverse of what the state’s consultants originally claimed (incorrectly, as they later acknowledged by changing their answer), I can also say that natural experiments in population health don’t harbor some as-yet-unidentified confounder that causes the study population to outperform the control population.
I was a chubby kid, which brought with it all manner of slights, both real and imagined. My predicament was worsened because I came from an immigrant family, and my father was tormented by unrelenting and untreated bipolar disease. When he was lucid, however, he taught essential lessons that neither he nor I knew at the time would become my life’s cornerstone: don’t trust the professions too much; advance your own cause through limitless learning; and, use exercise — all forms of it — as an irreplaceable lever for personal betterment. My dad may have been out of it more often than not, but he swam, did calisthenics, played tennis, and boxed, and he walked vigorously right up until the end of his life. I saw, I learned, I did (and still do).
Imagine, then, my chagrin at how the Affordable Care Act (ACA) effectively shears away the concept of personal responsibility and mastery of lifelong wellness skills from the pursuit of actual health. It was a huge missed opportunity to teach Americans about what’s first in the line of responsibility for good health.
Instead, the ACA’s philosophical foundation ignores the power that individuals have to impact their personal health trajectory, and it compels Americans to accept lifelong roles as patients in a system that many of them not only don’t want any part of but that they distrust and don’t understand. It is exactly the opposite result that something called “health” reform should have produced.
A critical observation in Cracking Health Costs is you need not “challenge the data” to invalidate claims that wellness saves money. Instead, you can simply read the data as presented. You’ll find it usually invalidates itself.
Nowhere is that more true than in a study published this month by Mercer, Staywell and British Petroleum (“BP America”) in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (JOEM). As we’ll demonstrate, the results completely contradict Staywell’s own statements, and are also mathematically impossible. Indeed, Mercer was a wise partner choice by BP America because their validations are often unconstrained by the limits of possibility. For instance, they validated massive savings both for infants in a North Carolina Medicaid program that did not enroll infants, and for a Georgia Medicaid disease management program that did not manage diseases, at least according to the FBI.
Along those lines, let’s see what happens when one compares the JOEM conclusion — that the Staywell wellness program for BP America achieved almost $20,000,000 in savings on 20,343 BP participants after only two short years – to the limits of possibility.
It turns out this overall savings claim of $1,000/person would require completely wiping out wellness-sensitive medical events (heart attacks, diabetes events etc.) not just on those 20,000+ people, but also on perhaps 40,000 of their closest friends. The authors elected not to disclose the change in wellness-sensitive medical events across the entire eligible population, perhaps because they were embarrassed by the size of the decline, if indeed those events declined at all.
Last week’s announcement by the American Medical Association’s (AMA’s) council on science and public health cheered me. It said that the AMA should not designate obesity a disease, because doing so was unlikely to improve health outcomes and because the most widely utilized obesity metric — the body mass index or BMI — was simplistic and flawed. It’s a reasonable and principled stance, which should have been the first clue that it was doomed.
The AMA’s board and delegates proceeded to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by ignoring their own scientific council and labeling obesity as a disease. To be clear, the decision is almost purely symbolic; it has no legal force or authority, but it does up the ante in the debate with insurers and employers over what care elements should be covered and reimbursed. In other words, this is about money. Obesity: the new ATM for the health care system.
Were US physicians blindfolded as they encountered patients growing incrementally larger with each visit? Were they keeping their mouths shut about the obvious — gee, I really think you should get out for some walking and limit the snacks — because they were awaiting a chance to make more creative use of ICD and CPT codes?
Eat your vegetables. Turn off the TV. Go outside and play. Go to bed on time. These four imperatives were once amongst the core messages delivered to children by their parents and neighbors, a setting of behavioral parameters that people intuitively expected would help to produce healthy, well-balanced kids. We’re not so good at this anymore. Like so many other behaviors that animate the phrase “personal responsibility”, in the face of economic and demographic tumult we have decided to pass the buck on them in our homes, neighborhoods, schools, and churches. We now want employers to handle them, and health-contingent wellness is the final step in the ascendancy of the employer as the new parent.
Employers find themselves teaching employees how to read and write effectively, do math, be polite, how to eat in the presence of others, and even how to sleep better. Why not throw at their feet the notion that employers should coerce workers into intrusive and dubious health-contingent workplace wellness strategies that are easy as pie for the healthiest, but far more difficult for the less fortunate who are, ostensibly, the ones who need the most help? This is not why most people start businesses (unless, of course, you’re a wellness vendor). It certainly is not why people devote themselves to work, which is supposed to be for securing (hopefully) individual and familial prosperity and experiencing the unique contribution to personal dignity that comes from purposeful endeavors.
US employers are not responsible for the chronic disease crisis; truth be told, their sufferance of the costs of many wellness-sensitive events is limited because the majority of the medical catastrophes that health-contingent wellness programs promise to prevent (such as heart attacks, strokes, and many cancers) happen predominantly in older people who have mostly left the work force. Employers have been caught up in the maelstrom of demographic, industrial, and technological changes just like the rest of us. Yet, not only do we actively seek their participation in fishing expeditions such as health-contingent workplace wellness programs, some of them jump in with both feet. This should help to remind you that your CEO might just be the one who graduated at the bottom of his class.
A trio of groundbreaking publications on healthcare came out this April. They are my required reading list for CEOs. First is a study published in last week’s Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) by Eappen and colleagues (including among them Atul Gawande). The study found infections occurred in 5 percent of all surgeries in an unnamed southern hospital system. For U.S. hospitals, this is not an unusual rate of error — even though it is about 100 times higher than what most manufacturing plants would tolerate. No automaker would stay in business if 5 percent of their cars had a potentially fatal mechanical flaw.
If that’s not bad enough, the second finding is where we enter the realm of the absurd: according to the study, purchasers paid the hospital to make these errors. Medicare paid a bonus of more than $3000 for each one of the infections; Medicaid got a relative “bargain,” paying only $900 per infection. But the real chumps were the commercial purchasers (CEOs, that’s you). Employers and other purchasers paid $39,000 for each infection, twelve times as much as your government paid through Medicare. Most companies could create a good job with $39,000, but instead they paid a hospital for the privilege of infecting an employee. How many good jobs haven’t been created so businesses can pay for this waste?
Most employers are far more hard-nosed about managing their purchase of, say, office supplies than they are in purchasing health care — even though, unlike healthcare, paperclips never killed anyone and no stapler can singlehandedly sap a company’s quarterly profit margin. Yet, according to the Catalyst for Payment Reform, only about 11 percent of dollars purchasers paid to healthcare providers are tied in any way to quality. The results reflect this neglect of fundamental business principles for purchasing: Quality and safety problems remain rampant and unabated in health care, while employer health costs have doubled in a decade. Continue reading…
The exponential growth in wellness programs indicates that Corporate America believes that medicalizing the workplace, through paying employees to participate in health risk assessments (“HRAs”) and biometric screens, will reduce healthcare spending.
It won’t. As shown in my book Why Nobody Believes the Numbers and subsequent analyses, the publicly reported outcomes data of these programs are made up—often to a laughable degree, starting with the fictional Safeway wellness success story that inspired the original Affordable Care Act wellness emphasis. None of this should be a surprise: in addition to HRAs and blood draws, wellness programs urge employees to go to the doctor, even though most preventive care costs more than it saves. So workplace medicalization saves no money – indeed, it probably increases direct costs with these extra doctor visits – but all this medicalization at least should make a company’s workforce healthier.
Except when it doesn’t — and harms employees instead, which happens altogether too often.
Yes, you read that right. While some health risk assessments just nag/remind employees to do the obvious — quit smoking, exercise more, avoid junk food and buckle their seat belts — many other HRAs and screens, from well-known vendors, provide blatantly incorrect advice that can potentially cause serious harm if followed.
Suppose one day you sit in front of your work computer, click on a link supplied by your employer, and set about the task of answering a hundred or more highly intrusive health questions. Setting aside the issue of financial penalties or rewards for doing the survey, you would trust that the instrument itself, called a health risk appraisal (HRA), would actually have a sound scientific basis, especially since its ultimate goal is to give you purportedly accurate health guidance.
Unfortunately, your trust in the validity of the tool would be quite misplaced.
HRAs are an essential screening tool in workplace wellness programs despite the fact that no body of evidence clearly demonstrates either their fiscal or clinical value and that no health services research has determined which HRA is the optimal tool. Indeed, a recent review of HRAs concluded that they increase spending, not reduce it, and that no one has any idea whatsoever whether taking an HRA has anything to do with the delivery of health value.
By masking essential methodological truths about HRAs, wellness vendors have essentially hustled their employer clients into believing that HRAs, which frequently ask clinical questions best left to primary care clinicians or restate platitudes (gosh, I didn’t know it’s safer to drive while not under the influence), are both probative and predictive of a person’s health future. This is just simply wrong.