4 ways to create a healthier hospital campus

Wellness programs lead to employee engagement and cost savings, prompting more hospitals to incorporate employee wellness into their strategy to control future healthcare costs. And with research showing hospital employees have higher healthcare costs than the general population and are less healthy, hospitals are looking beyond simple "no smoking" policies to create healthier campuses for their employees, as well as patients and visitors.

Here are four real-world examples of how healthcare organizations are looking inward to improve employee health: 

1. Sound the alarm on smokers
For years, U.S. hospitals have been enforcing stricter hiring practices, with hospitals in Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee turning away job applicants who smoke. But Forth Valley Royal Hospital in Scotland has taken it a step further by installing a voice alarm that goes off when anyone lights up outside, the hospital announced earlier this year.

The hospital was looking for a more effective way to extinguish tobacco use. So it put the alarm at its main entrance, where even the lighting of a match triggers a bilingual message telling smokers to stop. If it successfully deters those who had been ignoring no-smoking signs, more alarms will be placed throughout the hospital campus.

Such tobacco-free strategies already are showing real results. For instance, Cleveland Clinic's strict wellness mandates that include a ban on hiring smokers have led to the number of self-reported smokers dropping from 15.4 percent to 6.8 percent over five years, the Clinic's Chief Wellness Officer Michael Roizen told FierceHealthcare in a recent interview.

2. Spotlight healthy food

Putting healthier food in the hospital cafeteria is a great start to promoting healthy behavior among employees. But employees and patients need help identifying those healthier options. So Massachusetts General Hospital color-coded food products with red, yellow and green labels to encourage cafeteria customers to choose more nutritional items. After only six months, sales of the red (least healthy) items dropped 14.1 percent, while sales of the green (healthiest) items increased 5.3 percent.

With similar goals in mind, New Jersey's Hackensack University Medical Center and Overlook Medical Center instituted a rating system that gives food items zero to three stars for nutritional value, the hospitals announced earlier this month. The star ratings aim to make it easier for employees and visitors to make healthier food choices. For added incentive, Overlook is awarding its employees fit points for every star-rated item they purchase, which they can then redeem for gift certificates to use in the hospital cafe.

3. Capitalize on competition
With health reform rewarding better health and disease prevention, hospitals are enhancing health and wellness efforts by opening fitness centers, often offering employees financial incentives for visiting the centers so many times a month.

But to really motivate employees to boost their physical activity, hospitals are using competition and holding fitness contests. Cape Coral (Fla.) Hospital, in collaboration with the Cape Coral Chamber of Commerce, launched a city-wide fitness challenge with more than 100 participants this year, modeled after a similar fittest executive challenge at a hospital in Kansas City, Mo.

The results are in and haven't disappointed. Thanks to the 12-week challenge, the percent of people with a BMI (body mass index) in the obesity and overweight ranges dropped, while those with a normal-range BMI increased, noted Scott Kashman, Cape Coral's chief administrative officer.

The contest also led to a drop in medication for high cholesterol and other ailments. In fact, one participant saw an extra $1,600 from medication savings.

"As we know, if we focus on improving quality (our health and wellness), the money will follow," Kashman noted.

4. Hire health coaches, wellness coordinators.
In addition to adding wellness programs, hospitals are adding wellness-related employees. For example, Providence Alaska Medical Center is hiring health coaches to help their own employees adopt healthy behaviors, such as getting adequate exercise and managing stress. Such coaches helped the number of obese hospitals workers fall from 36 percent in 2009 to 32 percent in 2011. Blood pressure and cholesterol levels also dropped.

Meanwhile, Nevada's Humboldt General Hospital has a wellness coordinator who is tasked with organizing and directing initiatives aimed at helping hospital employees and community residents improve their physical health.

"Wellness is about small steps toward the greater whole of health," Wellness Coordinator Louis Mendiola said last month in a statement. "Small changes every day can lead to huge improvements over time. My job will be to help lead us as a hospital and as a community through that process."