Help payers, employers and members set wellness resolutions for 2015


Jan. 1 officially kicks off New Year's resolution season. Wellness--whether in the form of exercising more, eating better or simply practicing healthier habits--often tops the to-do list for the new year.

In the past, most people began wellness journeys with family, friends and like-minded co-workers. These days, though, employers increasingly start the wellness conversation.

Despite the good intentions, that can rub a lot of people the wrong way.

The issue isn't so much the programs themselves. All of us prefer health to sickness, and most of us appreciate a helping hand from our employer when it comes to getting and staying healthy.

What most of us do not appreciate are prying eyes on top of those helping hands.

Wellness programs increasingly require employees to share personal information, such as blood test results and questions about their home lives, or face a penalty.The penalties for failure to answer these questions range from paying more for employer-sponsored health insurance to (allegedly) getting fired for speaking up.

It's not surprising that people remain reluctant to share this information. People tend to withhold data from their doctors, and the doctor-patient relationship is substantially more sacred than consumer-insurer or worker-employer.

This type of attitude is wrong. Wellness programs require reasonable levels of give and take. People need to put down the tinfoil hat and understand that most wellness programs aim to make them better. Secrecy, dishonesty and distrust only derail this process. Yes, it's weird to wear a pedometer, submit to a biometric screening or take "walking meetings" with the boss, but the fundamental goal is improved health.

One New Year's resolution for the employee/patient/consumer, then, is to have a little faith. Not all elements of a wellness program make sense--a former employer tried to encourage full-grown adults to skip rope--but they stem from good intentions.

Stick with it, too. I almost quit running high school cross country after two weeks because my shins hurt. My coach told me not to. I'm still running 19-plus years later, with 11 marathons under my belt. Health and wellness are hard, but the rewards are well worth the sacrifices.

Now for the employer/doctor/insurer. First, stop collecting unnecessary information--CVS Health used to ask employees about their sexual activity--and start safeguarding the information you have. What's more, if you can't justify why you're collecting information, don't collect it. Assure people that information won't be used against them.

Next, make it count. Free T-shirts? Ha. Pizza coupons? Kinda defeats the purpose. Reimbursed gym membership? Yes, but don't forget that spin classes and dumbbells are only a small part of the picture. Competitions? Sure, but don't let anyone "game" the system. (I know someone who gorges the night before his company's weight-loss challenges and starves himself before the final weigh-in.) When in doubt, money talks.

To a point, that is. It remains to be seen whether financial penalties for noncompliance with wellness programs will be upheld in court, but an easier (and more popular) approach is to use positive incentives instead of negative consequences. Set a higher baseline for premiums or deductibles and then offer plan discounts for anyone who hits his or her goals. (The insurance I receive through my wife's employer does this. We've taken more than one evening trip to the local mall to hit our daily steps goal.)

Take another step and help people create goals specifically tailored to their needs. That crazy marathon runner has vastly different wellness, dietary and fitness goals than, say, the new mother in accounts payable or the salesman who hits the road every other week. If necessary, bring in a nutritionist or fitness coach to work with members (and their doctors) to set reasonable goals.

Finally, since I just dished out some unsolicited New Year's resolutions for the entire healthcare industry, it's only fair to share some of my goals for the year. I plan to run two marathons, to finally qualify for the Boston Marathon--it helps that I join a new age group in 2015--and to set at least one other personal best. (Not in a 5K, though. I cannot touch that best time from high school.)  

Professionally, meanwhile, I intend to continue immersing myself in the healthcare payer market, advocating for better employee/patient/consumer engagement across the industry and pushing myself to be a better writer, editor and manager. These goals may be tough, but if I can run 26.2 miles in a downpour, I can do just about anything. -- Brian (@Brian_Eastwood and @HealthPayer)

Related Articles:
For wellness programs, choice is often sharing personal health data or paying a fine
Study: Nearly half of patients would withhold data from providers
Why wellness programs should use positive incentives instead of negative consequences

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