Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Guest Commentary: Employer-Based Wellness Programs - Is There A Long-Term Benefit?

Neil I. Goldfarb
Associate Dean for Research
Jefferson School of Population Health

Last Thursday, the Jefferson School of Population Health hosted Dr. Dee Edington, University of Michigan Health Management Resource Center, as the 19th annual Grandon Lecture speaker. Dr. Edington is one of the nation’s leading researchers on health and wellness programs. Many of us prepared for Dr. Edington’s visit by reading his latest book, Zero Trends: Health as a Serious Economic Strategy. Among Dr. Edington’s key recommendations: “keep the healthy people healthy,” and focusing with patients on the message of “don’t get worse,” is more feasible and likely to have more impact than telling them to lose 50 pounds or make other dramatic changes in lifestyle.

The School’s Employer Research Interest Group had the opportunity to spend some private time with Dr. Edington discussing his work and exploring future directions for our own research initiatives in the employer wellness space.

One of the key questions that continues to trouble me is whether employer-based wellness programs are cost-saving, from a societal perspective, i.e. a growing body of evidence demonstrates the potential of wellness initiatives to help employers achieve a “zero trend” in their health-related spending, but does this translate into lifetime savings from a societal perspective?

Dr. Edington concurred that employers are focused on avoiding costs during the employment years; what happens, from a cost perspective, once employees retire and hit Medicare is of little concern (to them). I certainly would not argue against any programs that extend years of productivity or quality of life, but unless we change our approach to delivering high-cost, often-unnecessary, services toward the end of life, today’s big push in wellness may lead to tomorrow’s budget-busted Medicare program.

Implementing and evaluating wellness programs is just one of several topics covered in our College for Value-based Purchasing of Health Benefits, a training program for employee benefit managers that we have offered since 2004 in collaboration with the National Business Coalition on Health and the HealthCare21 Business Coalition of Tennessee (www.cvbp.org). We will offer the College for the 14th time in Philadelphia this summer, July 19-21, with a special parallel track for pharmaceutical industry account managers and others who work routinely with employers. For more information, please contact me at neil.goldfarb@jefferson.edu.