Winning the war on obesity

George Pantos Healthcare Performance Management InstituteObesity rates have doubled in the last 30 years, according to three news studies published in the British medical journal Lancet. Among developed nations, Americans were the fattest worldwide.

That's obviously bad news for our nation's health. But it's also bad for our economy. An estimated 300,000 people die annually because of obesity-related factors. Plus, obesity costs employers about $73 billion each year, which is more than alcoholism or smoking.

Fortunately, obesity is preventable. American companies can do their part to trim burgeoning waistlines--and reduce their own health costs--by utilizing technology and workplace wellness programs.

Companies can no longer afford an unhealthy workforce. The average premium for individual employer-sponsored health insurance rose 5 percent last year. Employer-sponsored premiums are projected to double by 2020.

Obesity alone adds $2,800 to a person's annual medical bill. Obese people also face a higher risk of contracting chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes and hypertension.

Many firms have responded to the obesity-fueled growth in health costs by slashing benefits and increasing employee co-pays. Such moves make little sense. Benefit reductions harm employee morale and can allow chronic conditions to develop into acute--and more expensive--illnesses.

So, what can employers do to trim costs without cutting benefits?

For starters, companies can examine their employees' de-identified medical claims data to identify health risks within their workforces and then implement customized, low-cost programs, including wellness initiatives, to address those risks. Such a technology-fueled response to workforce health issues is at the heart of "healthcare performance management" (HPM).

How would such a program work in practice?

A company could work with a third-party expert to analyze claims data to find employees struggling with weight problems--or who may have risk factors like elevated lipid counts or high-waist circumferences that can lead to obesity. The third party can guarantee patient privacy by preventing a company from accessing its workers' personal health records.

Employers then could help these workers take charge of their weight by offering low-cost gym memberships or free counseling with nurses or nutritionists. Simply educating workers about the risks of obesity can make a huge difference, as numerous studies have shown that most Americans underestimate their weight.

Without personalized outreach, workplace wellness programs are doomed to fail. Most of those offered by insurers take a "one-size-fits-all" approach, with little opportunity for patients to interact with knowledgeable healthcare experts.

Naturally, they tend to get poor results, with participation rates below 10 percent.

To improve engagement rates, companies should consider utilizing registered nurses as wellness coaches who can interact with employees one-on-one. These coaches can help beneficiaries design action plans to address their health issues. Companies who adopt this more personalized approach, as well as the technological techniques at the heart of HPM, have seen average participation rates edge up to nearly 40 percent.

Incentives can make wellness initiatives even more successful. At firms that have handed out gift cards, over half the work force has signed on. Offering premium discounts can drive participation rates up to 80 percent.

Since 2004, IBM has held a 12-week wellness program for its employees. With the promise of a $150 rebate check, more than 50 percent of workers enrolled. The rebates were a small price to pay. Thanks to the program, the company has saved $190 million in healthcare costs.

Other companies can do the same. The Wellness Council of America estimates that a company can save $3 in healthcare costs for every $1 it spends on employee wellness programs.

Healthcare represents most companies' second- or third-biggest expense. Yet firms historically have displayed little interest in curbing risk factors like obesity that drive health cost growth. Such inaction is unwise. By implementing healthcare performance management strategies and actively working to promote wellness, employers can take charge of their benefits, cut health costs, and protect their most important assets--their employees.

George J. Pantos, Esq., is executive director of the Healthcare Performance Management Institute.