By AL LEWIS
Part 2 picks up where Part 1 left off, as coincidence would have it.
Soeren Mattke (as mentioned in the last installment) and I were quite relentless in trying, quixotically, to get Professor Baicker to explain her results. Its popularity could have landed her many profitable speaking and consulting gigs, but she evinced no interest in cashing in, or even in defending her position. Indeed, the four times she spoke publicly on the topic, she didn’t do herself, or her legions of sycophants in the wellness industry, any favors. In each interview, she distanced herself more and more from her previous conclusion. Here are her four takeaways from her own study “proving” wellness has precisely a 3.27-to-1 ROI:
- It’s too early to tell (um, after 30 years of workplace wellness?)
- She has no interest in wellness anymore
- People aren’t reading her paper right (Shame on us readers! We’re only reading the headline, the data, the findings and the conclusion, apparently)
- “There are few studies with reliable data on the costs and the benefits”(um, then how were you able to reach a conclusion with two significant digits?)
Individually or in total, these comments sounded an awful lot like retractions, but she (and her co-author and instigator, David Cutler) claimed those comments didn’t constitute retractions. Whatever they were, she wasn’t exactly doubling down on this 3.27-to-1 conclusion.
By AL LEWIS
Let’s climb into the WABAC Machine (and, yes, that’s the way it’s spelled) and set the dial for 2008.
Then-candidate Barack Obama, campaigning on the promise of universal health coverage, enlisted Harvard professor David Cutler as his key adviser on that topic. Business lobbying associations were not thrilled about their members having to cover all their full-time employees and incorrectly assumed, then as now, that the major drivers of healthcare cost were employees smoking, overeating, and not exercising. Prof. Cutler suggested, quite correctly, that one way to assuage that concern would be to allow employers to spend less money covering employees with those three health habits.
Fast-forward to 2009, when it appeared that — with enough concessions to enough vested interests — the Affordable Care Act (ACA) could become a reality. Business lobbying groups were, then as now, powerful entities. Using Prof. Cutler’s suggestion, they were pacified by allowing businesses to tie up to 30% of total premium dollars to employee health (in practice, largely employee weight). Generally, the business lobbying groups engineered this withhold in the shadows. It wasn’t until 2015 that one of those business groups, the Business Roundtable, publicly admitted that the 30% withholdwas the main reason they bought into the ACA.
Since this 30% was basically a giveaway to corporations, the Obama Administration needed to justify it as a cost-savings measure. On the one hand, they had the Safeway experience “proving” that wellness could save money in practice. This alleged proof was met with open arms by both parties. Safeway’s CEO became a “rock star” on Capitol Hill. (Of course, Safeway’s wellness program, like virtually every other great-sounding success in wellness, turned out to be a scam. In retrospect, just reading the Safeway CEO’s Wall Street Journal op-ed* announcing these results, it’s amazing how the mind-blowingly fallacious statistics didn’t get called out back then, by me or anyone else.)
Etiology, pathogenesis and translational science beat drums to which modern medicine marches – with escalating cadence. Yes, there is cacophony on occasion and missteps, but we all wait for the next insight to trigger a wave of enthusiasm at the bench and beyond. “Disease” is no longer an elusive monster in the swamp of ignorance; “disease” is prey. It can be defined, parsed, deduced, and sometimes defeated.
Little of this pertains to “health.” Health does not objectify itself. Nor is it simply the absence of disease. Health has temporal and geographic dimensions. Health is inseparable from the context in which it is experienced. Health has a narrative laced with peculiar, often idiosyncratic idioms. Furthermore, there is a crucial difference between the health of a person and the health of the people.
Science has limitations when it comes to studying health. For one, the studying becomes a component of the experience of health. Nonetheless, we have accumulated a great deal of substantive information that serves to define the boundaries of healthfulness and offers options with salutary potential. Much of this reflects a century of considering the personal ramifications of gainful employment. Much of this falls under the purview of occupational medicine and should be a source of pride.
Did it ever occur to some of today’s physicians that many people work awfully hard and complain a lot less than they do about “burnout” and “work-life balance”?
Did it ever occur to them that “work-life balance” is the very definition of a first-world problem, unique to a very privileged class of highly educated people, most of whom are white?
Every day, I go to work and see the example of the nurses and technicians who work right alongside me in tough thoracic surgery cases. Zanetta, for instance, is the single mother of five children. She leaves her 12-hour shift at 7 p.m. and then faces a 60-mile commute to get home. She never complains, and unfailingly takes the extra moment to get a warm blanket for a patient or cheerfully help out a colleague
The recent Health Affairs Blog post by Al Lewis, Vik Khanna, and Shana Montrose titled, “Workplace Wellness Produces No Savings” has triggered much interest and media attention. It highlights the controversy surrounding the value of workplace health promotion programs that 22 authors addressed in an article published in the September 2014 issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine titled, “Do Workplace Health Promotion (Wellness) Programs Work?” That article also inspired several follow-up discussions and media reports, including one published by New York Times columnists Frakt and Carroll who answered the above question with: “usually not.”
There are certainly many points of contention and areas for continued discussion on this topic. It turns out that Lewis et al. and I agree on many things, and there are other areas where we see things differently.Continue reading…
Last year, we soundly criticized the American Heart Association (AHA) on this blog for its proposal to lower the thresholds for treating cholesterol and getting larger numbers of Americans to swallow statins. We also exposed wellness vendor StayWell, for its mathematically impossible claims of success in British Petroleum’s wellness program. Proving that great minds aren’t the only ones that think alike, StayWell and the AHA have now joined forces. Specifically, the AHA invited the CEO of StayWell, Paul Terry, Ph.D., to help write its workplace wellness policy statement, sort of like Enron inviting Bernie Madoff to help design its financial plan. You don’t learn of this fox-in-the-henhouse conflict of interest unless you read the table on the penultimate page of text.
Naturally, Mr. Terry parlayed this windfall to StayWell’s advantage. The statement: “currently available studies indicate that employers can achieve a positive ROI through wellness” is footnoted to two studies authored by: Paul Terry, along with other Staywell executives. One wonders how a StayWell executive writing policy for the AHA based partly on StayWell’s own articles passes the AHA’s own test of “making every effort to avoid actual or potential conflicts of interest that may arise as a result of an outside relationship.”
How did this conflict of interest get by the peer reviewers? Look at the list of peer reviewers. Prominent among them is Ron Goetzel. Readers of THCB may recall Mr. Goetzel not just from his central role in the Penn State debacle, but also from the ”The Strange Case of the C. Everett Koop Award,” in which it was documented that his committee gave the ironically named award to a sponsor of the award (without disclosing that conflict), even though that sponsor had admitted lying about saving the lives of 514 cancer victims, who, as luck would have it, didn’t have cancer. (The sponsor, Health Fitness Corporation, a division of the equally ironically named Trustmark, has won the Koop award several times, thus proving the cost-effectiveness of their sponsorship.)
If this litany were not enough to dismiss the policy statement forthwith, there is small matter of the actual policy itself, a full employment act for wellness vendors and cardiologists alike, advocating more screening of more employees more often, while ignoring more self-evident facts than Sergeant Schultz. Specifically, they cherry-picked the available literature, continuing to cite the old “Harvard study” whose lead author has now walked it back three times. Except that they didn’t call it the “old Harvard study,” but rather a “recent [italics ours] meta-analysis,” despite the fact it was submitted for publication in 2009, and the average year of the analyses in the study was 2004. Some studies began in the 1990s and were able to use sleight-of-hand to “show savings” despite presumably — in accordance with the conventional wisdom of the era — getting people to eat more carbohydrates and less fat. No wonder Soeren Mattke of RAND Corporation dismissed the Harvard data as archaic in his interview with CoHealth radio in February 2014.
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?
The press and trade publications strongly endorse workplace wellness programs as a good investment for employers. Soeren Mattke, a physician and RAND senior scientist, explains why his work tells a different story.
Why are workplace wellness programs so popular?
Because employers think the programs make business sense. They are supposed to improve employees’ health, increase their productivity, help control their chronic conditions, and reduce their risk of developing a chronic disease in the longer term. Employers believe that the dollars they spend on these programs will come back to them in avoided health care costs. For example, a recently published review suggested that employers gained three dollars in health care savings for every dollar spent on a workplace wellness program.
What does a typical workplace wellness program look like?
They usually have two components: lifestyle management and disease management. Lifestyle management focuses on employees with health risks such as smoking or obesity. The goal is to help employees reduce those risks, thus steering clear of serious disease down the line. In contrast, disease management is intended to support employees who already have a chronic disease by helping them take better care of themselves, e.g., reminding them to take their medications.
So are the programs living up to their press?
Perhaps in part. We recently published a study that included almost 600,000 employees at seven firms. We found that lifestyle management reduced health risk, like smoking and obesity, but no evidence that it lowered employers’ health care spending. Our new analysis extends that finding. Looking at 10 years worth of data from a Fortune 100 employer, we found that its program generated a reduction of about $30 per member, per month in health care costs. But disease management was responsible for 87 percent of the savings.
How does this disparity translate into return on employer’s investment?
The return on investment is strikingly different. For the disease management component, the employer earned a $3.80 return for every dollar invested in the program. For lifestyle management, the return was only $.25 for every dollar invested.