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January 19, 2016

10 Most Dangerous Wellness Programs

Summary:

One of the 10 wellness plans relies on drugs specifically discouraged by the AMA. Another is 100% guaranteed to harm the workforce.

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If corporate wellness didn’t already exist, no one would invent it. In that sense, it’s a little like communism, baseball, pennies or Outlook.

After all, why would any company want to purchase programs that damage moralereduce productivitydrive costs up…and don’t work 90% to 95% of the time? And those are the results reported by wellness proponents.

Those are the employers’ problems, but the employers’ problems become the employees’ problems when employees are “voluntarily” forced to submit to programs that are likely to harm them. (As the New York Times recently pointed out, there is nothing voluntary about most of these programs.)

Recently, the head of United Healthcare’s (UHC) wellness operations (Optum), Seth Serxner, admitted that Optum’s programs consciously ignore U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) screening guidelines. Rather than apologize, Serxner blamed employers for insisting on overscreening and overdiagnosing their own employees…and (by implication) overpaying for the privilege of doing so. “Our clients make us do it,” were his exact words.

We asked our own clients who use Optum about why they turned down Optum’s generous offer to do more appropriate screenings at a lower price. None of them remember receiving such an offer.

A UHC executive wrote and said we were making the company look bad. I said I would happily revise or even retract statements about the company if the executive could introduce me to just one single Optum customer — one out of their thousands — who recalls insisting on overscreening and overpaying. Never heard back….

United Healthcare isn’t alone in harming employees. It is just the first company to admit doing so. It is also far from the worst offender, as the harms of its overscreening for glucose and cholesterol don’t hold a candle to the ideas listed below, in increasing order of harms:

#10 Provant

We would say: “Someone should inform Provant that you are not supposed to drink eight glasses of water a day,” except that we already did, and they didn’t believe us. Obsessive hydration remains one of their core recommendations despite the overwhelming evidence that you should drink when you are thirsty.

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By contrast, the New York Times, which has an Internet connection, writes the opposite:

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#9 Cerner

The employee who recorded this blood pressure is essentially dead. Cerner’s diagnosis? Blood pressure “higher than what is ideal.” Cerner’s recommendation? “Talk to your healthcare provider.” A real doctor’s recommendation? “Call an ambulance. The guy barely has a pulse.”

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This is not a random mistake. This is the front cover of the company’s brochure.

#8 Nebraska/Health Fitness Corp.

USPSTF screening age recommendations aren’t minimums. They are optimums, the ages at which screening benefits might start to exceed harms, even if they still fall far short of costs. Otherwise, you are taking way too much risk. This is especially true for colonoscopies, one of this program’s favorite screens — complications from the test itself can be very serious.

Your preventive coverage is not supposed to be “greater than healthcare reform guidelines.” That’s like rounding up twice the number of usual suspects. And you aren’t supposed to waive “age restrictions.” That’s like a state waiving minimum “age restrictions” to get a driver’s license.

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Yet this program won a C. Everett Koop Award for excellence in wellness, not to mention the unwavering support and admiration of leading wellness apologist Ron Goetzel.

#7-#6 (tie) ShapeUp and Wellness Corporate Solutions

Both these outfits pitch exactly the opposite of what you are supposed to do in weight control: unhealthy crash dieting. Attaching money to this idea and setting a start date make the plan even worse: along with crash-dieting during these eight weeks, you’re encouraging employees to binge before the initial weigh-in.

Here is ShapeUp:

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Here is Wellness Corporate Solutions:

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Both also made up outcomes. In ShapeUp’s case, the company had to rescind its “findings” after the customer, Highmark, skewered the company in the press. And neither seems to care that corporate weight control programs are proven not to work.

#5 Aetna

In addition to its wellness program that collects employee DNA (partnered, ironically, with a company called Newtopia) and then makes up claims about savings, Aetna owns the distinction of launching the only wellness program whose core drugs are specifically editorialized against in the Journal of the American Medical Association. This would literally be the most harmful wellness program ever, except that the only employees being harmed are (1) obese employees who (2) answer the phone when their employer’s health plan calls them to pitch these two drugs; (3) who have a doctor who would willingly prescribe drugs that almost no other doctors will prescribe, because of their side effect profile; and (4) who don’t Google the drugs. Presumably, this combination is a very low percentage of all employees.

The good news is that the drugs, Belviq and Qsymia, should be off the market in a couple of years because almost no one wants to take them, so the harms of this Aetna program should be self-limited.

#4 Star Wellness

Star Wellness offers a full range of USPSTF D-rated screens. “D” is the lowest USPSTF rating and means harms exceed benefits. Star gets extra credit for being the first wellness vendor to sell franchises. All you need is a background in sales or “municipal administration” plus $67,000 and five days of training, and you, too, can poke employees with needles and lie about your outcomes. Is this a great country, or what?

Also, the company’s vaccination clinic features Vitamin B12 shots. We don’t know which is more appalling–routinely giving employees Vitamin B12 shots or thinking Vitamin B12 is a vaccine.

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#3 Angioscreen

Angioscreen doesn’t have the most USPSTF D-rated screens. In fact, it offers only one screen in total, for carotid artery stenosis. That screen gets a D grade from USPSTF, giving Angioscreen the unique distinction of being the only vendor 100% guaranteed to harm your workforce.

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Angioscreen’s other distinction is that the company admits right on its website that this screen is a bad idea. Angioscreen is probably the only non-tobacco company in America to admit you are better off not using its product.

#2 Total Wellness

In addition to the usual assortment of D-rated tests, the company offers screens that the USPSTF hasn’t even rated, because it never, ever occurred to the USPSTF that anyone would use these tests for mass screening of patients or employees. Criticizing the USPSTF for not rating these “screens” (CBCs and Chem-20s) would be like criticizing Sanofi-Aventis for not warning against taking Ambien after parking your car on a railroad crossing.

#1 HealthFair

Let’s leave aside the fact that the majority of its other screens are harmful and focus on its screening for H.pylori, the strain of bacteria associated with ulcers.

Visit our full treatment here. In a nutshell, the majority of us harbor H.pylori–without symptoms. It may even be beneficial. The screening test is expensive and notoriously unreliable, and the only way to get rid of H.pylori is with some very powerful antibiotics, a treatment rarely even used on patients with symptoms, because of its inconvenience, ineffectiveness and potential long-term side-effects.

A Modest Proposal

So how should we as a country protect employees from these harms? Our policy recommendation is always the same and very non-intrusive. We aren’t saying wellness vendors shouldn’t be allowed to harm employees. That proposal would be too radical to ever pass Congress. If it did, the Business Roundtable would pressure the White House again, to preserve the hard-earned right to “medicalize” the workplace and show employees who’s boss.

Instead, we recommend merely a disclosure requirement. The harms of screens or (in United Healthcare’s case) screening intervals that don’t earn at least a “B” from USPSTF should be disclosed to employees, and employees should get a chance to “opt out” into something that isn’t harmful (like Quizzify, perhaps?) without suffering financial consequences.

Call us cockeyed optimists, but we don’t think employers should be able to force employees to choose between harming themselves and paying fines.

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About the Author

Al Lewis, widely credited with having invented disease management, was founding president of the Care Continuum Alliance and is president of the Disease Management Purchasing Consortium, the leading procurer and evaluator of valid programs for health plans and large employers.

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