What hospitals are doing for employee wellness

Karen Cheung

 Karen M. Cheung

The idea is so crazy that it just might work: Keep hospital employees healthy and maybe it'll rub off on patients. More hospitals these days are taking a vested interest in their employees' wellness, whether they're instituting no-smoking rules, enrolling workers into exercise programs or offering healthy foods in the hospital cafeteria.

Here are a few strategies that Susan L. Johnson of the employee wellness program at Medical University of (Charleston) South Carolina (MUSC) shared with FierceHealthcare about what the teaching hospital is doing to promote healthy living among its 12,000 employees.

Susan Johnson

Susan Johnson

Although Johnson admitted that it wasn't always the best, the culture at MUSC has turned itself around into an award-winning institution with recognition from the South Carolina Hospital Association and NC Prevention Partners as a Center of Excellence for its work in changing the hospital's approach to nutrition, tobacco use and physical activity.

"When we first took the assessment, we had horrible grades like Cs and Fs," Johnson said. "But I saw that as an opportunity."

Consider the following strategies to start or revamp a wellness program at your institution:

Set up committees and champions.
Each of the three areas of nutrition, tobacco use and physical activity had a committee behind it, along with champion leaders who would spread the news about the hospital's initiatives. The idea is to create a culture of wellness through policy, education, benefits and education. In addition to the champions, MUSC has various channels to disseminate information, including a newspaper with a weekly column from Johnson, broadcast announcements and Facebook posts.

Offer healthy options.
Johnson said that although most of the reaction has been positive in offering healthy foods, some employees still simply wanted a donut.

"What I try to emphasize is that number one, I'm not the food Nazi; that's not the purpose," Johnson said. "The purpose is not to take away foods but to add food, add options and emphasize healthy foods. We want to make the healthy choice the easy choice, so that it's by default. The more we do that, the more it becomes ingrained in culture."

For example, at least 25 percent of the vending machine food must be healthy, that is low-fat and low-sodium, among other specific markers.

Combating the idea that healthy food means expensive food, MUSC also discounted the healthy food by 10 percent and offered a frequent flyer card so that the more healthy items add up to free items.

Tax the unhealthy food.
On the flip side, unhealthy foods got a five-cent tax in the vending machines, with profits going toward the hospital's heart health program for fighting against childhood obesity.

Make healthy food visible.
MUSC also wanted to highlight the healthy food options with its nutritional content. In addition to labeling foods with a "wellness" icon, it instituted a simple color coding system, with green indicating healthy foods, yellow as cautious food and red as the bad foods--an approach also tested by Massachusetts General Hospital. In the Mass General study, published in January, sales of the red (the least healthy) items dropped 14.1 percent, and sales of the green (the most healthy) items increased 5.3 percent.

"We try to keep it as simple as possible. If you try and complicate it too much, people aren't going to take the time. That's why we use icons and easy colors," Johnson said.

The trick is to keep the momentum going, though. MUSC conducts quarterly audits of the food services "to make sure that we sustain this so that we didn't just do this one time and that it would fall off," Johnson said.

Food service workers also go through a training program to ensure the food is prepared and served in a healthy way, she noted.

Engage the community with gardens and markets.
The other misconception that MUSC works to remedy is the idea that healthy food tastes bad. The hospital offers free tasting from local vendors, offers a farmers market and added two CSA (community-supported agriculture) shares, which not only engage the hospital but the larger community.

"We should be the model, not only for our own employees ... but for reaching out to the community as a leader and a model for what it means to be healthy and to provide those opportunities for the folks in our community," Johnson said.

And just this month, MUSC replaced its smoking huts with healing gardens with herbs and has plans to open up a roof garden. MUSU also broke ground on what used to be a parking lot and converted it into a half-acre vegetable garden open to the community with the hope of launching education programs and packing up food for other businesses and schools.

"We're really moving in the right direction in terms of being creative, and we try hard to engage our local community," she said. Johnson added, "It just makes for us as a healthcare facility. We've been focused on healthcare on treating illness, but the issues that we're dealing with now in terms of chronic disease are lifestyle-related, and we really need to shift our focus and emphasize prevention." - Karen (@FierceHealth)