Would you be willing to share with your employer how much you eat, drink, smoke or exercise? And would you be willing to make lifestyle changes in return for a break on the cost of your health insurance? The University of Minnesota offered such discounts to its workers. Actions such as completing a health questionnaire, biking to campus or setting personal fitness goals earned insurance discounts beginning at $300. Nearly 6,000 employees accepted the bargain.
But do such programs have the intended effect of healthier employees and lower health-care costs?
A 2010 analysis of 36 studies that looked at corporate wellness programs suggested they can be effective. Researchers calculated that employers saved $6 for every $1 spent: $3.27 saved in medical costs and an additional $2.73 gained due to reduced absenteeism. An earlier analysis had found that such programs reduced sick leave, health plan costs, worker compensation and disability costs by about 25 percent.
But not every study has reached the same conclusion. A series of studies, published recently in the influential journal Health Affairs, looked broadly at the efficacy of employer wellness programs. One study concluded that employers might save money on one aspect of health care but spend it on another.
In a second study, UCLA-led researchers discovered that “a majority of studies showed no significant spending differences between people who used tobacco, had high blood pressure or cholesterol levels, or got inadequate amounts of exercise, compared with other people.” The authors also suggest that although incentives may help get employees off to a good start in making changes, sustaining them is more challenging. In the case of weight-loss programs, incentives helped participants lose weight, but in the long run, they regained it. In 19 trials looking at smoking cessation, only one had significant effects on smoking rates after six months.
For employees, perhaps the most telling red flag from the study is that their employers may be saving money not by making them healthy but rather by shifting health-care costs onto them.
Rahul K. Parikh is a physician and writer in the San Francisco Bay Area. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.