Aetna's personalized wellness program shows quick return on investment

A personalized program that targeted employees at high risk for metabolic syndrome saved health insurance company Aetna more than $600,000, and seems to prove it's possible for a wellness initiative to show a positive return on investment in one year.

The program used voluntary genetic screening to assist program coaches and client managers in personalizing behavioral reinforcement strategies to help Aetna employees who signed up for the wellness program lose weight, according to a study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

The year-long study, which included 445 company employees at high risk of developing metabolic syndrome, found that when employees made lifestyle changes--mostly improving nutrition and increasing exercise--the program had clinical and economic impact in just 12 months.

Researchers, who were all employees of Aetna, said 318 employees (76 percent of those studied) lost an average of 10 pounds. Risk factors--including waist circumference, triglyceride levels and HDL cholesterol levels--also improved, which were associated with reductions in total healthcare costs of $122 per employee per month, for a total savings of more than $600,000. Overall, Aetna has about 50,000 employees.

Along with high-intensity coaching and a traditional psychosocial assessment, the program tested participants for three specific genetic markers that influence how diet, exercise and compulsive behavior impact body weight, body fat and metabolism. Based on the results, coaches individualized the design of the program with diet and exercise requirements for participants, which the researchers said contributed to the high and sustained engagement rates. Employees used telephone, e-mail and Skype to communicate with their coach and care manager.

While some have questioned the effectiveness of wellness programs, the authors say the Aetna study "shows that a clinically targeted, personalized wellness program can result in significant improvements in engagement, clinical outcomes related to [metabolic syndrome] risk, and costs within just one year."

But these findings contrast with previous research that argues no company can point to savings achieved from an employee weight-loss program, nor can any company demonstrate sustained weight loss across a large population for two years or more.

To learn more:
- read the study

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