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Implementing Employee Health Programs That Work

Few issues have polarized our nation more this year than health care reform.  Yet advocates on both sides of the aisle agree: providing affordable access to quality care is the desired goal. But wouldn’t the most effective healthcare initiative be one that would actually decrease the need for that care in the first place?

Workplace health improvement programs have been doing just that. The Towers Perrin 2008 Healthcare Cost Survey concluded that businesses that implement these strategies had a 16% lower per-employee health care cost than companies without such programs—$8,532 vs. $10,200 per active employee. Johnson & Johnson saved $8.5 million yearly in reduced health-care costs during a four-year wellness program involving more than 18,000 employees. Citibank realized a return of $4.56 for every dollar spent on its health management program. When you factor in decreased absenteeism and enhanced employee productivity, the financial benefits become starkly obvious.

If employee health improvement programs are a timely prescription for our nation’s ills, how can employers get started in order to enjoy all the benefits these programs have to offer?  One suggestion is to explore a partnership with a local hospital. Most medical centers have offered screening and wellness services for years, including testing for diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension, and cancer. They provide weight management programs and lifestyle modification classes, such as smoking cessation, to help people adopt healthier habits and manage their health risks.

If your business is considering implementing a workplace health improvement initiative, here are five steps you can take to get started and to ensure you receive the maximum benefit, both in cost savings and a healthier workforce.

1. Collect baseline data.  Most employers do not have an accurate picture of the overall health of their employees. So collecting this information is a crucial first step, as it helps the company determine where it should direct its efforts. For instance, if obesity is a common problem in a workforce, then weight management programs may provide the biggest bang for the buck. This initiative is not as daunting as it sounds. Personal health surveys are readily available to collect information on each employee’s health plan participation, physician relationships, and selected key health indicators such as blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose levels. Because this is protected information, it must remain confidential to ensure patient privacy. Hospitals have been dealing with such information for years and they can provide valuable insight into the appropriate management of this data. Many companies also encourage their employees’ dependents to complete personal health profiles, as family members are often covered by an employer-sponsored benefit package and so have a direct impact on a company’s health-care expenditures.

2. Develop personalized health reports.  Sophisticated software is available to create a personalized health report and plan of action for each employee, based on the health information collected.  They help identify any existing or potential health issues, such as diabetes, hypertension, or a history of smoking. The reports provide valuable information for employees to use in discussing health enhancement measures with their personal physicians. They can also provide guidance on healthy lifestyle habits and link employees to programs that can help them improve their health or manage health risks. At a time when financial realities are forcing many employers to reexamine employee benefits overall, personalized health reports can be seen as a value add for workers and their families, since they involve no cost to employees.

3. Build an aggregated workforce health profile.  By using the data collected from the personal health surveys, companies can create an accurate snapshot of the overall health of their workforce. They can then identify ongoing issues, such as high numbers of employees with modifiable health risks such as lack of exercise, nicotine use, unhealthy eating habits, stress factors, and so forth, and provide an opportunity for early intervention. Or, companies may discover that a large percentage of employees are at risk for manageable conditions like diabetes or heart disease, which can lead to serious chronic health problems down the road.  By building an aggregated workforce health profile, employers know where to focus their efforts.  They can also establish a baseline so they can track the effectiveness of initiatives over time. Employers who can demonstrate real improvements in workforce health may even be able to negotiate better health insurance rates, leading to additional cost savings.

4. Introduce an organized program of health improvement activities.  To mitigate the potential effects of identified health issues, employers should launch screenings, education classes, fitness incentives, and intervention-reward programs that help workers manage their risks and improve their health. If the employer has partnered with a hospital, they may offer assistance in creating low- or no-cost wellness programs.

5. Establish a home base for wellness.  Telegraph your company’s commitment to wellness by establishing a central clearinghouse of health information. Appoint an in-house “champion” who can spearhead wellness initiatives and keep them at the forefront of employee communications. Health information centers—visually appealing displays located in break rooms, cafeterias, or employee lounges—can serve as a highly visible distribution point for health-related information and educational materials.

There’s no debate: Making a commitment to improved employee health can provide real cost savings for employers and an enhanced quality of life for employees. And that’s a prescription that will get everyone’s vote.

About the Author(s)

Henry Ross Henry Ross, M.B.A., is CEO of Aegis Health Group, a company in Brentwood, TN, that specializes in marketing strategies for hospitals.