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National Bureau of Economic Research has bad news and good news for the wellness industry

Not to be confused with those immortal words often attributed to the great philosopher Yogi Berra, a big joke among economists is: “An economist is someone who upon learning how something works in practice, wonders how it will work in theory.”

That joke morphed into reality last month — though it was a controlled study testing a theory, rather than the theory itself. The “theory” would be that inactive unmotivated non-participants can be used as a control for active motivated participants. Ironically, this study design has never been proposed as legitimate, even in theory. Wellness “researchers” like it because it always show savings, even when nothing happens. For example, even when there was no program for the participants to participate in.

Obviously if this were a legitimate design, the FDA would approve it for clinical trials, saving a ton of time and money vs. having to do controlled trials.

To wit, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) just published a study showing that the participants-vs-non-participants (“par-vs.-nonpar”) study design, used extensively by the very stable geniuses in the wellness industry to do their alt-research to fabricate their alt-findings, is completely invalid.

No surprise. This NBER study validates what we’ve all observed in practice — as the three examples in this article amply demonstrate.  The somewhat more amusing TSW version is here.


Highlights of NBER study for the wellness industry: bad news first

First the bad news. Fasten your seat belts and be shocked, shocked to learn that the researchers could identify:

  1. No noticeable change in health behaviors due to the wellness program
  2. No noticeable change in health outcomes due to the wellness program
  3. Clear self-selection bias among participants opting into the wellness program

Lest anyone think we are taking this out of context, here are their exact words:

We do not find any significant effects of treatment on total medical expenditures, employee productivity, health behaviors, or self-reported health measures in the first year following random assignment.  We further investigate the effect of our intervention on medical expenditures in greater detail, but fail to find significant effects on different quantiles of the spending distribution or on any major subcategory of medical expenditures (pharmaceutical, office, or hospital). We also do not find any effect of treatment on the number of visits to campus gym facilities or on the probability of participating in a popular annual community running event, two health behaviors that are relatively simple for a motivated employee to change over the course of one year.

This of course merely confirms what we observe in outcomes reports published by wellness vendors, including the two most recent proud recipients of the Deplorables Awards.  Actually, in the case of Wellsteps there was indeed a noticeable change in health outcomes among program participants — they got worse.

Also, the authors — no doubt anticipating the objection from the very stable geniuses at the Health Enhancement Research Organization — specifically note that nothing in Year One’s results presage any step-function improvement in Year Two. So the specious “Wait ’til next year” argument is off the table.

You might be thinking, “Another nail in the wellness industry coffin.” True, except that there almost isn’t room for any more nails. Soon the coffin will have enough nails to create its own gravitational field.


Next, the good news

Here are the two pieces of good news for the wellness industry. One finding was:

Our 95% confidence intervals rule out 78 percent of previous estimates on medical spending and absenteeism.

That means that it is possible that 22% of previous estimates may conceivably not be completely invalid. This is not to say that 22% are valid, just that they aren’t automatically invalid. That is great news for the wellness industry, where clearing the bar for not being automatically invalid is cause for celebration.  As Dave Chase says, the bar for wellness is so low a snake could jump over it.

However, the 78%-totally-invalid figure specifically invalidates Katherine Baicker,  author of the so-called “Harvard Study.” Depending on whether you are a wellness vendor or an oppressed employee, she is either the Johnny Appleseed or the Typhoid Mary of wellness.  Her famous 3.27-to-1 ROI was tallied entirely from par-vs.-nonpar studies, exactly the methodology that the NBER just invalidated, citing exactly the studies she cited. (The three examples in my study referenced above were also part of her meta-analysis.)

So perhaps she might now make a formal statement regarding par-vs-non-par as a study design?  Either a retraction or a defense. Just something that clarifies her previous statements, which seem to be neither retractions nor defenses but rather more like excuses:

  1. It’s too early to tell (um, after 30 years of workplace wellness?)
  2. She has no interest in wellness any more
  3. People aren’t reading her paper right (we’re only reading the headline, the data, the findings and the conclusion, apparently)
  4. “There are few studies with reliable data on the costs and the benefits” (um, then how were you able to reach a conclusion with two significant digits?)

The irony is that Kate Baicker has otherwise done outstanding research. Her study on Oregon Medicaid is a classic. In Oregon at the time, Medicaid eligibility was determined by lottery amongst applicants. That meant that — quite the opposite of wellness control groups  — the control group of people not picked in the lottery had equal motivation to seek insurance coverage as people who were picked.  After following both groups going forward, her finding was that obtaining insurance to access basic medical care did not change outcomes. (Having insurance did bring peace of mind, though.)

And yet somehow in “Workplace Wellness Can Generate Savings,” she was quite comfortable reaching a conclusion that was completely inconsistent with her Oregon finding, not to mention the Law of Diminishing Returns: throwing additional unrequested, generally unwanted, and largely misdirected medical interventions and advice at employees who already have insurance — and recall that most insured Americans are drowning in medical care — could dramatically improve their outcomes enough to calculate not just a massive ROI, but an ROI precise to two significant digits.

What she will hopefully learn through the NBER study is something that I learned 11 years ago: when the data proves you wrong, fess up.  Then people like me have to find someone else to blog about. Fortunately, in wellness, that is not a heavy lift.


The second piece of good news for the wellness industry

To quote the study:

 …wellness incentives may shift costs onto unhealthy or lower-income employees if these groups are less likely to participate in wellness programs. Furthermore, wellness programs may act as a screening device by encouraging employees who benefit most from these programs to join or remain at the firm

To be clear, this calculation does not imply that adoption of workplace wellness programs is socially beneficial. But, it does provide a profit-maximizing rationale for firms to adopt wellness programs, even in the absence of any direct effects on health, productivity, or medical spending. [emphasis theirs]

In other words, employers can use wellness programs to subtly discriminate against unhealthy — read, older and poorer — workers.  Many of the very stable geniuses in the wellness industry will be happy to hear this. The exceptionally stable genius who will be most thrilled to hear this is Michael O’Donnell.  Mr. O’Donnell is the former Prevaricator-in-Chief of the wellness industry trade publication and a current member of the Koop Award cabal.  These are excerpts from one of his editorials:

First, he says prospective new hires should be subjected to an intrusive physical exam [editor’s note: notwithstanding the fact that this is totally illegal], and hired only if they are in good shape.  OK, not every single prospective new hire needs to be in good shape — only those applying for “blue collar jobs or jobs that require excessive walking, standing, or even sitting.”   Hence he would waive the physical exam requirement for mattress-tester, prostitute, or Koop Award Committee member, because those jobs require only excessive lying.

Second, he would fine people for not meeting “outcomes standards.” In an accompanying document, he defines those “outcomes standards.” He specifies fining people who have high BMIs, blood pressure, glucose, or cholesterol.

In other words, Mr. O’Donnell wants to charge for insurance by the pound, as that accompanying document says. Actually, by BMI, which of course is of dubious value as a measure of weight, let alone health.

Here is his actuarial formula:

Although having read his very stable arithmetic elsewhere in this same document, I’d worry about the accreditation status of any actuarial school, or for that matter any school of any kind within the 50 states, that would accept him:

Thirty-one states have no laws that prohibit employers from using smoking status as the reason for not hiring… In the remaining 29 states…smoking status cannot be used as the reason for not hiring.

I’m not waiting around for a retraction from this genius either.

The Workplace Wellness Industry’s Body-Shaming Hall of Shame

Note that this personal blog post does not necessarily represent the views of any organization with which I am affiliated, other than the one with which I co-founded.  I am referring, of course, to the Needham Frisbee Club, where everyone is welcome to join and play and become fitter — since fitness at any size, not corporate crash-dieting contests, is the key to health.


By now, many facts are well-known about weight and weight loss programs:

Further, while perhaps not proven, there is growing evidence, also here, and here, that weight cycling may be hazardous to health. (This would likely be particularly true when an employer ties incentives to gaining weight for the first weigh-in in order to lose it by the second weigh-in.)

And, yet, a number of the workplace wellness industry’s very stable geniuses have chosen to body-shame employees.  The individuals and companies listed below are the wellness industry’s leading body-shamers, charter members of the Body-Shaming Hall of Shame. No surprise that wellness luminaries are leading the charge towards body-shaming, as their industry has repeatedly been called words like “sham” and “scam” by Pulitzer Prize-winning media outlets not otherwise known for name-calling.

Where possible, we have provided contact information, that you can use to let the appropriate people know how you feel about endorsing body-shaming in the workplace. Obviously, one can never eliminate discrimination based on body type, but hopefully this exposé, and creating the Body Shaming Hall of Fame, will reverse the trend towards employer support of weight discrimination in wellness programs.


Troy Adams, Wellsteps

Wellsteps is known in general for harming employees, and won a Deplorables Award in 2016 for harassing Boise School District employees. Mr. Adams cemented his and Wellsteps’ candidacy for this list by declaring: “It’s fun to get fat. It’s fun to be lazy.” After receiving many complaints, he took that article down. But he never apologized and Wellsteps continues to pitch “wellness or else” programs in which employees are fined if they can’t lose weight.

Ignorance of physiology (fines and incentives have never cured any disease known to mankind) is quite consistent with the rest of Wellsteps’ philosophy. They also have no understanding of arithmetic (costs can’t increase and decrease at the same time), drinking (it is OK to have wine with dinner or a beer at a ballgame), smoking (smokers don’t take their first steps to quitting by smoking only on weekdays), nutrition (“one more bite of a banana” will not improve your health), and arithmetic again.

You can let Wellsteps’ largest client know how you feel about this by writing to the Boise School Committee at Jeannette.clark@boiseschools.org and copying the editor of the local newspaper, Rhonda Prast, at rprast@idahostatesman.com.


Michael O’Donnell, American Journal of Health Promotion

Michael O’Donnell served, until recently, as the prevaricator-in-chief of the industry trade publication, the American Journal of Health Promotion, which might as well be called the American Journal of Self- Promotion, for the simple reason that – despite the overwhelmingly poor economics of “pry, poke and prod” programs and their strong likelihood of harming employees – they have published only one single sentence critical of wellness…and when that was discovered to have slipped through pre-publication review by their thought police, they walked it back in the next issue.

Mr. O’Donnell was voted into the Hall of Shame thanks to his proposal to charge employees for insurance based on BMIs, a “pay what you weigh” approach, like ordering lobsters or sending a package.

His proposal should be read in its entirety (or at least the hilariously annotated version). Here are a few highlights:

  • Prospective new hires should be subjected to an intrusive physical exam and hired only if they are in good shape.  OK, not every single prospective new hire — only those applying for “blue collar jobs or jobs that require excessive walking, standing, or even sitting.”   Hence, he would waive the physical exam requirement for mattress-tester, prostitute, or outcomes analyst for a wellness company – because those jobs require only excessive lying.
  • Employees above his ideal weight would pay per pound.
  • He would “set the standard for BMI at the level where medical costs are lowest.” Since people with very low BMIs incur higher costs than people with middling BMIs, Mr. O’Donnell would fine not only people who weigh more than his ideal, but also employees with anorexia.

If employees didn’t already have an eating disorder, what better way of giving them one — and hence extracting more penalties from them — than to levy fines based on their weight?

We aren’t making this up. Here is an excerpt:

He claims that all these weigh-ins and fines will create an “insanely great program” for employees, whether they like it or not.


Vitality Group, Johnson & Johnson – and Ron Goetzel

Where would a wellness-related Hall of Shame be without Ron Goetzel? Name a debacle or scandal in wellness, and his fingerprints are on it. Penn State, Nebraska, McKesson, Bravo/Graco, and of course Wellsteps come immediately to mind.

He was also the very stable genius behind the Johnson & Johnson Fat Tax. The Fat Tax  was supposed to be a game-changer, ostracizing overweight folks with the misfortune of working for publicly traded corporations. In this scheme, companies would weigh their employees and then disclose those weights to shareholders. The shareholders would presumably reward those companies doing the best job of reducing employee weight, creating more profit for the wellness vendors, like Vitality or Johnson & Johnson, who would help employees lose weight. Ultimately it would be a tax, in that every employer that did not hire a wellness company and/or fire fat employees would see its stock price tumble, making wellness a mandatory fee.

While this “fat tax” would go a long way towards achieving the Wellness Ignorati’s goal of monetizing body-shaming, bringing financial disclosure into the picture raises all sorts of regulatory issues. Could you force employees to be weighed in order to meet SEC disclosure rules? What if employees cheated on the weigh-in, as employees are wont to do? Would that create a Sarbanes-Oxley violation?

There are three ironies here. It turns out that companies that are obsessed with prying, poking and prodding their employees, like McKesson, watch their stock prices tumble. And companies specifically obsessed with goading their employees into crash-dieting contests, like Schlumberger’s chart below, have the worst stock performance of all.

Second, it turns out that Vitality can’t get its own employees to lose weight, and yet they want you to hire them to get your employees to lose weight.

Finally – and this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone – there is zero correlation between employee weight and corporate performance.

Mr. Goetzel works for Johns Hopkins and often places their name on his essays. If you have an opinion on whether Johns Hopkins should be supporting institutionalized body-shaming, you can express your opinion by writing to Dean Ellen MacKenzie at emacken1@jhu.edu .


Honorable mentions

Dr. Delos “Toby” Cosgrove, president of the Cleveland Clinic. After commenting that he would not hire smokers at the Clinic, he added that he would not hire obese people if he could legally deny them jobs.

So he doesn’t want to work with obese people, except if they happen to be president.

Dr. David Katz coined the term “oblivobesity” because apparently, he feels we have not yet made larger people feel bad enough about themselves to force them to do something about their weight – the difficulty of which has apparently been overstated because, according to Katz writing in the Huffington Post:

“There are rare cases of extreme weight loss resistance and such, but by and large, we can lose weight and find health by eating well and being active. Really.”

He deftly rebuts 30-plus years of consistent and conclusive research to the contrary by adding “really” to the end. Because everyone knows that makes a statement true. Really.

He also continues to illustrate his postings with pictures of headless fat people. And then there is his defense of Dr. Oz.


Please feel free to contact us about additional “shamers” you would like to add to the list along with the reasons why.

 

 

Announcing the Winner of the Wellness Industry’s 2017 Deplorables Award: Interactive Health

Winning a Deplorables Award is no easy feat for a wellness vendor. You have to out-lie, out-harm and generally out-stupid many worthy competitors. Yet this year’s competition wasn’t even close. Fitbit might have won on lies and stupidity alone, but no one was ever harmed by wearing an activity tracker. Interactive Health clobbered them in harming employees.  Like Wellsteps (the 2016 Deplorables Award Winner) they managed to do that multiple ways. This award covers the harms, the lies, and the stupidity. Truly the perfect storm of workplace wellness.


The Harms

Interactive Health’s signature move is conducting mass screens so inappropriate that doctors doing essentially the same thing — paying people to take this panoply of tests and then billing insurance — would lose their licenses.

Needless to say, when you do all sorts of inappropriate tests, you find all sorts of non-existent problems, and send all sorts of employees to all sorts of doctors. This isn’t simple overdiagnosis. This is classic hyperdiagnosis as described in our 2015 posting.

This is what we wrote in that posting, and it appears Interactive Health is the poster child for it. As compared to overdiagnosis, which is the unfortunate byproduct of well-intentioned efforts to help patients who present with symptoms, hyperdiagnosis is:

  1. pre-emptive — employees aren’t asking to be diagnosed, don’t have symptoms, want to be left alone, and often aren’t even old enough to have the stuffing screened out of them yet;
  2. either negligently inaccurate or purposefully deceptive (and IH has been requested many times to stop doing inappropriate screenings but they continue unabated);
  3. powered by pay-or-play employee forfeitures for non-participation, of the type about to become illegal in 2019;
  4. all about the braggadocio – wellness companies love to announce how many sick people they find in their screens…

…And here is Interactive Health doing exactly that:

What do you do after you round up all sorts of unsuspecting employees with inappropriate screens? Obviously, you bombard them with inappropriate advice, of course.  Specifically, the huge percentage of employees at risk for diabetes — thanks to those “a1c tests for everyone” (which of course are specifically not recommended by the USPSTF) are supposed to drink full-fat dairy, not skim. And absent hypertension, they are also not supposed to avoid salt. Quite the contrary, maintaining US-average salt consumption appears to be protective against diabetes. (Not to mention that salty snacks often substitute for sweet ones.) We had no trouble finding these studies online. Hopefully Interactive Health will use some of their award money to purchase an internet connection.

Fortunately, most employees pay no attention to Interactive Health’s 1500-word single-spaced tomes, so it’s unlikely their antediluvian advice harmed anybody.

Third, speaking of harms, they also harmed me when I went in to be screened. Not just by announcing my PSA score when I specifically asked not to be tested for PSA, but by stretching my calf far enough to send it into spasm.


The Lies

The English language already has 450,000 words, the most of any language. And yet none of those words adequately describe the amount of lying done by Interactive Health, even after they’ve been caught.

They are claiming “amazing results” based on one study by an unknown, now-defunct consulting firm that couldn’t even pay its internet provider. (The consulting firm had also made up a set of qualifications in which, other than articles and prepositions and conjunctions, every word was a lie.)

Once the lies were initially exposed, they paid me to stop writing about them for a while. I agreed, provided that they stop lying — meaning that I can write about them ad nauseam.

The smoking gun for the initial lie was that they accidentally admitted that they didn’t really reduce any risk factors. You can’t save a gazillion dollars by reducing employees’ wellness-sensitive medical events if you can’t improve employees’ wellness. According to their own figures (and of course excluding dropouts and non-participants, whose risks likely climb), their risk reduction was quite trivial. How trivial? The Wishful Thinking Multiplier — savings divided by the number of risk factors temporarily reduced — exceeded $50,000.

After that expose, they sealed their front-runner status for a Deplorables Award by simply trying to suppress the evidence. They took the trivial risk reduction displays out of that study, and now only make available the bowdlerized version, which they call a “research summary.” The only way you can get the raw risk reduction data is by scrolling down this post. Rule one in wellness whistle-blowing: always take screenshots.

And most recently, they’ve become strong proponents of Wellsteps’ strategy, bragging about how many high-risk employees became low-risk without mentioning that roughly as many low-risk employees became high-risk.  Suppose you flip 100 coins. It’s not enough to say that of 50 heads, 25 became tails. You also have to admit that 25 of the tails flipped to heads. At the end of the day, nothing changed. Here are the heads-to-tails, from their website. (By the way, this is also not true, even on its face.)


The Stupidity

Ask any employer what is the “new smoking” in terms of employee hazards and mortality. Most will say opioids, of course. Not Interactive Health. For them the “new smoking” is…

interactive-health-sitting-smoking

Hey, Interactive Health, maybe you can find a smart person to explain this particular statistic to you:

  • According to the CDC, the number of annual deaths caused by smoking480,000
  • According to the CDC, the number of annual deaths caused by sitting0

Here are some other differences between the two activities: Chairs don’t carry excise taxes or warning labels. If you’re under 18, you can buy a chair without a fake ID.  Workers are allowed to sit inside the building. Chairs don’t make you clothes smell, cause lung cancer or dangle from the lips of gunslingers in old John Ford westerns. Sitters aren’t assessed health insurance penalties. Your Match date will not feel misled if he or she catches you taking a seat, even if your profile didn’t disclose that you sit.



And finally…

Take The Interactive Health IQ Test

Which of these images is most unlike the others?

interactive-health-iq-test

 

 

Wellness Vendors Dream the Impossible Dream

Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said. “One can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”


Six impossible things before breakfast?  The wellness industry would just be getting warmed up by believing six impossible things before breakfast. They believe enough impossible things all day long to support an entire restaurant chain:

Consider the article in the current issue of BenefitsPro — forwarded to me by many members of the Welligentsia — entitled: “Can the Wellness Industry Live Up to Its Promises?”  BenefitsPro rounded up some of the leaders of the wellness industry alt-stupid segment. Specifically, they interviewed US Corporate Wellness, Fitbit, Staywell, and HERO. Each is a perennial candidate for the Deplorables Awards — except US Corporate Wellness, which already secured its place in the Deplorables Hall of Fame (and Why Nobody Believes the Numbers) several years ago with these three paeans to the gods of impossibility.

In case you can’t read the key statistic — the first bullet point — it says: “Wellness program participants are 230% less likely to utilize EIB (extended illness benefit) than non-participants.”  Here is some news for the Einsteins at US Corporate Wellness:  You can’t be 230% less likely to do anything than anybody. For instance, even you, despite your best efforts in these three examples, can’t be 230% less likely to have a triple-digit IQ than the rest of us.  Here’s a rule of math for you: a number can only be reduced by 100%. Rules of math tend to be strictly enforced, even in wellness.  So the good news is, even in the worst-case scenario, you’re only 100% less likely to have a triple-digit IQ than the rest of us.

And yet, if it were possible to be 230% dumber than the rest of us, you might be. For instance, US Corporate Wellness also brought us this estimate of the massive annual savings that can be obtained just by, Seinfeld-style, doing nothing:

So assume I spent about $3500/year in healthcare 12 years ago, which is probably accurate. My modifiable risk factors were zero then and they are still zero — no increase. So my healthcare spending should have fallen by $350/year for 12 years, or $4200 since then. But that would be impossible, since I could only reduce my spending by $3500. Do you see how that works now?

To his credit, US Corporate Wellness’s CEO, Brad Cooper, is quoted in this article as saying: “Unfortunately some in the industry have exaggerated the savings numbers.” You think?

I’m pretty sure this next one is impossible too. I say “pretty sure” because I’ve never been able to quite decipher it, English being right up there with math as two subjects which apparently frustrated many a wellness vendor’s fifth grade teacher:

400% of what?  Is US Corporate Wellness saying that, as compared to employees with a chronic disease like hypertension, employees who take their blood pressure pills are 400% more productive?  Meaning that if they controlled their blood pressure, waiters could serve 400% more tables, doctors could see 400% more patients, pilots could fly planes 400% faster? Teachers could teach 400% more kids? Customer service recordings could tell us our calls are 400% more important to them?

Or maybe wellness vendors could make 400% more impossible claims. That would explain this BenefitsPro article.


Fitbit

We have been completely unable to get Fitbit to speak, but BenefitsPro couldn’t get them to shut up. Here is Fitbit’s Amy McDonough: “Measurement of a wellness program is an important part of the planning process.”   Indeed it is! It’s vitally important to plan on how to fabricate impossible outcomes to measure, when in reality your product may even lead to weight gain.  Here is one thing we know is impossible: you can’t achieve a 58% reduction in healthcare expenses through behavior change — especially if (as in the 133 patients they tracked in one of their studies) behavior didn’t actually change.

You can read about that gem, and others, in our recent Fitbit series here:


Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO) and Staywell

I’ll consider these two outfits together because people seem to bounce back and forth between them. Jessica Grossmeier is one such person. Jessica became the Neil Armstrong of impossible wellness outcomes way back in 2013.  Not just any old impossible wellness outcomes — those have been around for decades. She and Staywell pioneered the concept of claiming outcomes they already knew were impossible.   While at Staywell, she and her co-conspirators told British Petroleum they had saved about $17,000 per risk factor reduced.  So, yes, according to Staywell, anyone who temporarily lost a little weight saved BP $17,000 — enough to clean up about 1000 gallons of oil spilled from Deepwater Horizon.

See British Petroleum’s Wellness Program Is Spewing Invalidity for the details.

Leave aside both the obvious impossibility of this claim, and also the mathematical impossibility of this claim given that employers only actually spend about $6000/person on healthcare.  Jessica’s breakthrough was to also ignore the fact that this $17,000/risk factor savings figure exceeds by 100 times what her very own article claims in savings. Not by 100 percent. By 100 times.

Fast-forward to her new role at HERO. In this article she says:

The conversation has thus shifted from a focus on ROI alone to a broader value proposition that includes both the tangible and intangible benefits of improved worker health and well-being.

Her memory may have failed her here too because HERO — in addition to admitting that wellness loses money (which explains its “shift” from the “focus on ROI alone”) — also listed the “broader value proposition” elements of their pry-poke-and-prod wellness programs. The problem is the elements of the broader value proposition of screening the stuffing out of employees aren’t “benefits.”  They’re costs, and lots of them:

When she says: “The conversation has shifted from a focus on ROI alone,” she means: “We all got caught making up ROIs so we need to make up a new metric.”  RAND’s Soeren Mattke predicted this new spin three years ago, observing that every time the wellness industry makes claims and they get debunked, they simply make a new set of claims, and then they get debunked, and then the whole process repeats with new claims, whack-a-mole fashion, ad infinitum.  Here is his specific quote:

“The industry went in with promises of 3 to 1 and 6 to 1 based on health care savings alone – then research came out that said that’s not true. Then they said: “OK, we are cost neutral.” Now, research says maybe not even cost neutral. So now they say: “But is really about productivity, which we can’t really measure but it’s an enormous return.”


Interactive Health

While other vendors, such as Wellsteps, harm plenty of employees, Interactive Health holds the distinction of being the only wellness vendor to actually harm me.  I went to a screening of theirs. In order to increase my productivity, they stretched out my calves.  Indeed, I could feel my productivity soaring — until one of them went into spasm. I doubt anyone has missed this story but in case anyone has

They also hold the distinction of being the first vendor (actually their consultant) to try to bribe me to stop pointing out how impossible their outcomes were. They were upset because I profiled them in the Wall Street Journal . The article is behind a paywall, so you probably can’t see it. Here’s the spoiler: they allegedly saved a whopping $53,000 for every risk factor reduced. In your face, Staywell!

Here is the BenefitsPro article’s quote from Interactive Health’s Jared Smith:

“There are many wellness vendors out there that claim to show ROI,” he says. “However, many of their models and methodologies are complex, based upon assumptions that do not provide sufficient quantitative evidence to substantiate their claims.”

You think?

Finally, here is a news flash for Interactive Health: sitting is not the new smoking.  If anything is the “new smoking,” it’s opioid addiction, which has reached epidemic proportions in the workforce while being totally, utterly, completely, negligently, mind-blowingly, Sergeant Shultz-ily, ignored by Interactive Health and the rest of the wellness industry.

There is nothing funny about opioid addiction and the wellness industry’s failure to address it, a topic for a future blog post. The only impossibility is that it is impossible to believe that an entire industry charged with what Jessica Grossmeier calls “worker health and well-being” could have allowed this to happen. Alas, happen it did.

And, as you can see from the time-stamp on this post, except at establishments favored by the Wellness Ignorati, breakfast hasn’t even been served yet.

Are you smarter than a wellness vendor? Take the Interactive Health IQ test and find out.

I’ve raised the bar for getting “profiled” on this site. Life is too short to simply highlight every wellness outfit that tests inappropriately and then lies about their outcomes.

Nor can you get on this list simply with bold proclamations of fatuous statements, like Interactive Health does:

interactive-health-sitting-smoking

Hey, Interactive Health, we get that you don’t understand statistics in general, based on the mind-boggling excuses your consultant offered about your completely invalid savings report (“Al, the [massive] savings on Page 4 have nothing to do with the [trivial] risk reduction on Page 9. It’s a completely separate analysis.”).

Even so, maybe you can find a smart person to explain this particular statistic to you:

  • According to the CDC, the number of annual deaths caused by smoking: 480,000
  • According to the CDC, the number of annual deaths caused by sitting: 0

Here are some other differences between the two activities: Chairs don’t carry excise taxes or warning labels. If you’re under 18, you can buy a chair without a fake ID.  Workers are allowed to sit inside the building. Chairs don’t make you clothes smell, cause lung cancer or dangle from the lips of gunslingers in old John Ford westerns. Sitters aren’t assessed health insurance penalties. Your Match date will not feel misled if he or she catches you taking a seat, even if your profile didn’t disclose that you sit.


The Interactive Health IQ Test

Which of these images is most unlike the others?

interactive-health-iq-test

 


No, these days to get into this column, you need to soar above and beyond ordinary wellness vendor stupidity and dishonesty, because Wellsteps has totally raised the bar…and yet Interactive Health has cleared it.


I was recently screened by Interactive Health.  They were supposed to send me a standard summary writeup, which I asked for repeatedly but never received.  Instead, weeks later, their lab sent me a lab report, with no interpretation. There are one of three explanations for this:

  1. They are too incompetent to send out summary writeups in a timely way;
  2. They think an unadorned, highly technical, lab report sent three weeks after the fact constitutes a useful summary writeup;
  3. They were about to send out their standard summary writeup, before someone noticed my name and said: “Whoa! That’s Al Lewis. He is nowhere near stupid enough to find our usual nonsense acceptable. He has already exposed our savings lies in the Wall Street Journal, and if we give him our usual writeup on his screening, he will expose our stupidity on his blog. We need to cover that up. So let’s just send him a lab report.”

By process of elimination, I originally landed on #3.  Quite flattering really. I’d make a few observations.

First, I specifically asked them, in accordance with USPSTF guidelines, not to measure my PSA. They interpreted that — as you can see from the top of that page reproduced at the very end — as a request specifically to measure my PSA. (It is on Page 2 of the report, which I can’t put my hands on right this very moment. However, the Wellness Ignorati, who still think it predicts cancer, will be disappointed to learn that it was quite low.)

Second, the glucose is slightly high because some very generous folks had just treated me to a large and delicious breakfast. A classic false-positive, the type of reading that makes wellness vendors’ hearts go all aflutter, because then they can do a followup reading and show that they improved the outcome, after it improves on its own.  Interactive Health’s lab report was completely unhelpful on this high reading. No advice offered.

Third, Interactive Health shattered the record, previously shared by Total Wellness and Star Wellness, for most USPSTF non-recommended blood tests. I don’t know what half these things are, which means neither does Interactive Health. (Total Wellness might win a second-place tiebreaker because they would still be testing for ovarian cancer — it’s still advertised on their website —  except that the only company that makes the test has pulled it from the market following FDA warnings not to use it. Hopefully, Total Wellness stockpiled some assays ahead of the recall, like Elaine did with the sponges.)

Interactive Health also tested me for calf tightness, as I mentioned in an earlier blog. It turns out my calves are tight, and right on-site they loosened them. I could feel my productivity soaring…until the left one went into spasm that night. Still, loose calves are a useful trait for some jobs, such as first baseman.


Interactive Health may have also just assumed that because they don’t like me, no one else in the industry does either.  That’s actually a fairly accurate assumption, one I am quite proud of given the integrity of most of them, with their trade association, the Health Enhancement Research Organization, leading by example in the pants-on-fire department. Indeed a good rule of thumb to determine if a wellness vendor is honest is to ask them what they think of me.

Nonetheless, I was able to find someone who was screened at a different screening and said he received an actual wellness outcomes report from these people, someone who likes me well enough to send it to me. Coincidentally, this individual had been urging me to post on Interactive Health for quite some time.  I figured, cool, I could see what a real report from Interactive Health looks like, the kind that changes employee behavior enough to explain their whopping savings claims of $54,000 for each employee who reduced a risk factor.

No such luck. He sent me exactly the same lab printout that they sent me. Only he hadn’t lost the second page, so I could count the total:  43 lab values.  “Knowing your numbers” could be a full-time job. One would think they had covered all the risk factors with all those lab values, but, curiously, the guy said his blood pressure was quite high, and they missed that altogether.

Hmm…how come he got the same completely unhelpful report I did? Did Interactive Health view my linkedin profile — as their executives are wont to do on a regular basis bordering on the obsessive –and decide that it wasn’t safe sending any of my connections their typical employee printout, on the theory that if I’m not stupid, neither are most of my connections?  If so, that would be their second fairly accurate assumption.

The only other explanation is that everyone receives the same unadorned lab report, full of letters and numbers and signifying nothing, at least to the average person without a PhD in biochemistry. My feelings were shattered. I wasn’t special. Do they send everyone else incomprehensible lab reports with 43 different numbers in them along with assortments of letters most people would associate with Scrabble…and no interpretations or advice?


Whether incompetence or botched coverup, the explanation itself remains a mystery. Nonetheless here are a few numbers and letters from his report.

interactive-health-alkaline-phosphatase

Maybe Interactive Health could interpret this for us, but I would be more confident of their ability to distinguish (for example) AST-SGOT from ALT-SGPT if they could distinguish (for example) a chair from a cigarette.


Another one:

interactive-health-cholesterol

How is anyone supposed to make any sense out of this? Most employees would think a “negative risk factor” is a bad thing,” as in “telling the truth is a negative risk factor for the profitability of wellness companies, which is why most of them never do it.” And what does “VLDLCH” mean and why isn’t it reported?  Still no interpretations.


And then of course there is the PSA test. If you don’t speak up — or even if you do speak up, as I learned — they’ll do one on you, even though the USPSTF rates it “D”, not to mention that the actual inventor of the test says the test is “inaccurate and a waste of money.”  My friend’s PSA result is listed at the bottom of this apparently random number and letter generator…

interactive-health-psa

And, yes, finally, an interpretation!

“Values obtained with different assay methods or kits cannot be used interchangeably. Results cannot be interpreted as absolute evidence of the presence or absence of malignant disease.”

In other words, the interpretation is that this test doesn’t explain anything, so we recommend ignoring the result.

It would have been even more helpful for them to recommend ignoring Interactive Health altogether– the calves, the chairs, the cigarettes, the AST and ALT, and, to be discussed in a future posting, the fabricated outcomes report.

 



Here is the entire first page of my own results, so that you know we are not taking this out of context…

interactivehealth

 

 

Should the Wellness Vendor Oath Be: “First, Do Harm” ?

Quizzify Q in B and W

The Quizzify oath: First, do help.

When Thomas Edison said: “We don’t know a millionth of 1% about anything,” he wasn’t talking about the wellness industry, because wellness vendors aren’t that knowledgeable.  And much of what they “know” is harmful.

Smoking and exercise aside, taking wellness vendors’ advice 10 years ago — during the time wellness was somehow allegedly racking up its famously fictitious 3.27-to-1 ROI by making employees healthier– would have been a very bad idea.  PSA tests, annual mammograms for younger women, colonoscopies at 5-year intervals, and EKGs were perfect examples of must-to-avoid screens, even if it meant leaving incentives on the table.

And yet even though most wellness vendors (Star Wellness, Bravo Wellness Total Wellness, HealthFair Services and Aetna being notable exceptions) won’t harm employees as much as they did 10 years ago, a lot of mythology still causes a lot of harm today, albeit more subtly.

Myth: “We need to ‘do wellness’ because 75% of our healthcare cost is due to preventable chronic disease.” (Ron Goetzel, in our recent debate, boosted this figure to 80% for reasons unknown.)

Fact:  Have ya looked at your high utilizers and other expenses? We-can-prevent-75%-of-cost-due-to-chronic-disease is the biggest urban legend in healthcare. We’ve done multiple articles on it — there are too many fallacies to squeeze in here.  Though it’s just arithmetic, this is the most harmful fallacy of all, because by causing employers to obsess with overprevention, it spins off all the other fallacies below.

Myth: “Reducing our employees’ BMIs will save money.”

Fact: The actual science is far more nuanced.  Some people have high BMIs because they are healthy.  And belly fat — even at “normal” weights — is riskier than all but the highest BMIs.  Further, attaching money to weight loss between weigh-ins creates a binge/crash-diet cycle that is decidedly unhealthy.

Myth: “Corporate weight loss programs save money.”

Fact: No corporate weight loss program has ever saved money. They don’t reduce BMIs, BMIs are the wrong measure (see above), and the link between reducing BMIs and saving money is nonexistent.

Myth: “Screening our employees will be good for their health.”

Fact: Annual screenings are a bad idea for the majority of employees. The head of Optum’s wellness operations, Seth Serxner, just acknowledged this inconvenient truth last week.  (He somehow shifted the blame to employers, for stupidly spending too much money on Optum and other vendors. That’s a topic for another post.)  The US Preventive Services Task Force has a schedule of screenings that essentially no wellness vendor follows. Because so few biometric screens are recommended for working-age adults by the card-carrying grownups who comprise the USPSTF, following USPSTF guidelines would bankrupt the industry.

Myth: “Screening guidelines balance costs and benefits so at worst we’ll break even.”

Fact:  Screening guidelines balance harms and benefits, not costs and benefits.  The subtlety of the distinction would be lost on most wellness vendors, but it is important.  (1) Unless screens are provided free, an employer will lose money even on a screening program done according to guidelines; (2) you are not doing your employees any favors by providing screening “greater than” guidelines, like the Health Fitness Corporation/Nebraska program did.  You are simply raising the likelihood of harm.

nebraska screening guidelines

Myth: “Annual checkups will keep our employees healthy.”

Fact:  For wellness vendors, the annual checkup has almost mystical power. Bravo’s CEO Jim Pshock loudly credits checkups with preventing cancer.  Wellness vendor bloviating aside, the science is quite settled: employees are more likely to be harmed than benefited by annual checkups.

Myth:  “Our employees need to eat healthier.”

Fact:  OK, there is a, uh, grain of truth here.  Many people have bad diets–fried food, sugar etc. But beyond eating less fried food and sugar, the science remains unsettled.  Salt, saturated fat, complex carbohydrates…all in the realm of not completely settled. What is true and remarkably overlooked is the epidemiological rule of thumb that if an impact is major, it shows up in small samples. 86 cases were needed to link lung cancer to smoking. And a famous study of 523 veterans proved very high blood pressure causes strokes. Yet after tons of controlled and observational studies — even comparing countries to one another — we still haven’t found “the answer.” That means “the answer,” whatever it is, won’t matter much in the workplace.  So you’re wasting your time trying to get employees to “eat right.”

We could keep going — antioxidants are more likely to cause cancer than prevent it. Sitting is not the new smoking.   And drinking eight glasses of water a day is good for you only in that you’ll get more exercise going to and from the restroom.

The biggest myth of all?  Wellness vendors actually do anything of value, other than make up savings figures to show your CFO so you look good.  Or as my colleague Vik Khanna says: “Love your employees.  Fire your wellness vendor.”

 

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