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Why One-Size-Fits-All Health Initiatives Don’t Work

Employers want healthy employees, but investing in initiatives is expensive, while health care keeps going up. Enter personalized care.

Why One-Size-Fits-All Health Initiatives Don’t Work
[Photo: Flickr user NEC Corporation of America]

When workplace health initiatives first became popularized in the 1970s, they typically involved company-wide meetings that provided healthy lifestyle advice.

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As time went on, corporate wellness programs sought to better engage employees, encouraging them to partake in company-wide sports and physical activities, providing healthier food options, and–in some cases–reimbursing employees for partaking in health-related activities outside of work.

Today, technologies such as big data analytics and wearable fitness trackers are ushering in a new era of corporate wellness, evolving from a one-size-fits-all model toward more targeted interventions which seek to address individual employees’ health care concerns.

“We very much encourage employers to do routine data collections so that they can understand what the whole population looks like, but also what these sub-populations look like–whether they’re grouped together because of a particular health risk or the type of work they do or their age or some other demographic characteristic,” says Jason Lang, team lead for workplace health programs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “If you can direct things to those specific groups as opposed to generally blasting out information to everybody–which might not be of interest or need to a large number of them–then you’re maximizing the use of resources.”

Wellness At Work

Lang adds while collecting health data on employees was once itself a difficult task–one that involved surveys and questionnaires–wearable technologies and big data analytics have enabled a more seamless and accurate approach. This will continue to improve, along with the sophistication and proliferation of such technologies.

“You get a sense that the program as a whole, or the company as a whole, is really taking a proactive interest in my health versus the general health of everybody,” he says. “[This] can be motivating and engaging factors to get someone to take the next step, and actually take an exercise class, or make a change, or go see their doctor.”

In a recent survey of nearly 20,000 human resources and wellness professionals by Healthiest Employer, an Indianapolis-based workplace population health data and analytics company, 80% ranked “improving overall health of the workforce” as the top motivation behind workplace health initiatives, yet only 15% were satisfied with the results.

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“What we found from our survey was that employers want to do wellness–intuitively, it makes sense that a healthy employee will be more productive, they’ll miss less work and have lower health care costs–but employers have spent $125 billion over the last four years to come up with the best way to focus on the prevention of disease, along with the treatment of illness once it’s been diagnosed,” said Rod Reasen, CEO of Healthiest Employer. “Their frustration is that the money is being spent but health care costs continue to rise. We found from the study that targeted initiatives are really what’s lacking.”

Reasen defines targeted engagement as an effort to understand the specific needs and concerns of individual employees for the purposes of providing personalized health care suggestions, resources, and initiatives. He explains while there are upfront costs associated with pursuing such an approach, it allows employers to better target their corporate wellness dollars in the long run.

“Traditional wellness will say that there’s a 3-1 return on investment,” he says. “By targeting, we believe you can see upward of a 50-1 return investment, because you’re focusing on the folks who are going to have [health-related] problems, not the ones who did last year.”

A Personalized Approach

Reasen says he believes such targeted interventions will become the standard model for workplaces of the near future. While most American companies continue to pursue one-size-fits-all corporate wellness engagements, some have already begun implementing a more personalized approach.

“One-size-fits-all was the starting point, and we learned from that, we learned what aspects were working and what aspects did not work so well, and the ones that worked well we’ve moved forward with,” said David Schweppe, vice president of customer analytics and reporting at Kaiser Permanente. “The market is now moving in that directed area of more personalized care, and more understanding of what is important to the individual.”

Schweppe adds Kaiser Permanente provides diagnostic reports to employers about the health concerns of their employees, and works with them to build workplace health initiatives that are tailored to the individual.

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“As you come in as a member to Kaiser Permanente to see your physician or your clinician, we capture a set of important things that we think are important to ongoing knowledge about the member,” he says. “We can then pull that data and aggregate it to one of the employer groups we’re working with to help them make their workforce healthier and understand where there are gaps in care.”

Schweppe adds as the tools that enable targeted interventions become more affordable and sophisticated, workplace health initiatives will continue to evolve toward this more personalized, accurate, sophisticated, and cost-efficient model.

About the author

Jared Lindzon is a freelance journalist born, raised and residing in Toronto, covering technology, entrepreneurship, entertainment and more for a wide variety of publications in Canada, the United States and around the world. When he's not playing with gadgets, interviewing entrepreneurs or traveling to music festivals and tech conferences you can usually find him diligently practicing his third-person bio writing skills.

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