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Employee Wellness Programs Shrink Waistlines, Improve Bottom Lines


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By Megan M. Krischke, contributor

July 8, 2011 - With the rising costs of health insurance, many organizations are looking for innovative ways to decrease costs. A number of successful measures have focused on employee wellness programs. Scripps Health, Florida Hospital Zephyrhills, and St. Petersburg General Hospital have all found that financial rewards motivate employees toward better health and result in cost savings.

Employee Wellness
Hamilton Mears, PT, MTC, FABC, Administrator of the Scripps Health wellness program, encourages others who are developing their programs to provide interventions that address population problems while being flexible enough to meet individual needs.

Scripps Health: Tracking Progress

“The real bottom line is the that offering a comprehensive employee wellness program is the right and responsible thing to do; if I can help someone have more energy and feel better, that is where the real reward is for me,” remarked Hamilton Mears, PT, MTC, FABC, administrator of the wellness program for Scripps Health in San Diego.

Scripps started its employee wellness program in 2006 by conducting the first, of what became an annual, voluntary biometric and lifestyle screening. The screening looks at 12 modifiable risk factors including smoking, seatbelt use, activity level and consumption of fruits and vegetables among the lifestyle factors. The biometric factors include blood pressure, glucose and cholesterol levels.

Mears emphasized the importance of starting a wellness program by assessing the employees’ risk factors because, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure. If you want people to try to change, you have to be able to provide them with information about their starting point and their goal and at the organizational level you have to measure risks, as well.”

Based on the organization-wide results, Scripps tailored their wellness program to address the most prevalent risk factors.

“We have population-level programs, individual programs that include telephonic coaching, self-directed programs and some social events such as monthly farm stands,” explained Mears. “We have topical issues we focus on for four to six weeks at a time and participants are asked to engage in daily activities and web modules in order to earn points, which over the course of a year can be the basis for a substantial monetary incentive.”

The points employees earn go toward decreasing their insurance premiums by $240 or $480, and employees who are not on the health plan can earn a cash reward of $120. In 2009, 4,324 Scripps employees earned one of these discounts or rewards.

The Scripps Health wellness program is both robust and effective. Over 8,000 employees, or approximately 60 percent of the health system’s workforce, participate in the wellness program, and the company saved a little over $2 million in health plan costs in 2010.

“In 2006, when we started the program, the average number of risk factors per person was 3.68 and that has decreased each year so that at the end of our last year it was down to 3.05 risk factors per person,” stated Mears. “The percentage of our employees who were at health risk due a lack of physical activity fell from 53.6 percent in 2006 to just 17.4 percent in 2010.  The percentage of employees eating at least three servings of fruits and vegetables a day increased 8.3 percent. The number of people who are in our low risk category increased from 29.7 to 42.9 percent and the number in our high risk category decreased from 43.4 to just 21.8 percent.”

Part of the effectiveness of Scripps’s wellness program can be attributed to Mears’s social savvy; he understands that people are motivated by word of mouth and testimonials. He has recruited a team of 125 wellness champions who are both socially well-connected and willing to spend 30 minutes a month on the phone with him learning about what is next for the program and providing feedback.

Florida Hospital Zephyrhills: Holistic Approach

At Florida Hospital Zephyrhills, which is part of the Adventist Health System, their program is known as, CREATION health. The acronym stands for: Choice, Rest, Environment, Activity, Trust in God, Interpersonal relationships, Outlook and Nutrition. Many of their wellness offerings are available not only to employees, but also to the community at large.

Employee Wellness
Ethan Bird, MPH, director of the wellness center for Florida Hospital Zephyrhills says that a paradigm that includes prevention as well as treatment, underlies their employee wellness program.

“My goal is to be able to support each component with programming or incentives that encourage people to apply them to their lives and to strive for optimum health,” stated Ethan Bird, MPH, director of the wellness center at Florida Hospital Zephyrhills, located northeast of Tampa.

Florida Hospital Zephyrhills began offering its employees health-related incentives in 2004. Currently, every six months employees can earn $100 for being physically active (which requires submitting an exercise log showing that they did three 30-minute aerobic workouts for 21 weeks within the six months), $50 for being tobacco free, $350 for being at a healthy weight at the time of assessment, or if they are overweight, they can earn $100 for every BMI point lost. This incentive program isn’t just for employees; it is also offered to any of their dependents who are covered by the hospital’s health insurance. Additionally, all nonsmokers receive a 15 percent reduction in their insurance premiums.

“We recently sponsored a 14-week weight loss challenge. Everyone who participated had access to lifestyle counseling, a personal trainer, support groups and we even hosted a ‘shopping safari’ to teach people how to shop for healthy food inexpensively,” Bird explained.

In 2010 the hospital saved $1.1 million in health premium costs and experienced a 318 percent return on their investment in the wellness program.

“I would encourage others who are looking to start or boost their employee wellness program to keep it ‘high touch.’ Even if you have a lot of high-tech gadgetry like telephonic health coaching or online assessments, the program administrator should stay personally connected and understand that what will attract others to join the program is their seeing the successes of the people around them,” advised Bird.

“As nurses work to help patients to regain their health, pursing their own health will not only give them more energy and mental focus to do careful clinical work, but the example of their own health status will be compelling to patients and offer them more credibility,” he concluded.

St. Petersburg General Hospital: Weight Loss Competition Creates Community

Guy Samuel, vice president of human resources at St. Petersburg General Hospital, lost 31 pounds during the hospital’s weight loss challenge last fall.

“Last fall, HCA, our umbrella organization, was rolling out part of a wellness program for which they were asking each employee to do an online assessment, followed by a physical screening to look at health risks. For simply participating in the screening, employees could receive $250 toward their health expenses and they could receive an additional $250 if they didn’t have high-risk factors,” Samuel explained. “Our hospital decided to issue a weight loss challenge to help people lower their risk factors before the screening.”

Employees at the hospital were enthusiastic about the challenge and 30 teams of five people each signed up for the program, which ran from August to November and offered both individual and team prizes for the greatest total amount of weight lost and the greatest percentage of weight lost.

“The program was so popular that we did it again in the spring, resulting in a total weight loss of 2,200 pounds among all the employees who participated,” reported Samuel. “In addition to the benefit of healthier employees, I would say that working toward a common goal has boosted staff morale and given them a greater sense of community with their co-workers.”

“Nurses work a tough schedule,” he continued, “And it is common for them to say they don’t have time for exercise, but the majority of our teams were made up of nurses who found the time to invest in making lifestyle changes that will benefit them for years to come.”

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