With the rise of employee wellness programs, which now reach 9 in 10 workers at large corporations, bosses are involved more than ever with how workers manage their weight. The idea is that slimmer employees will be more productive, happier, and cost less to employers and the overall health care system. (Even though evidence that these programs work is still scant.)
But what about kids? Today, one in three U.S. children are overweight or obese, and, according to the Brookings Institution, if all obese kids become obese adults, the societal cost could reach $1 trillion. They also will make their parents–i.e., a company’s workers–stressed out: Obese and overweight children miss more school days and are 20 times more likely to need medical care. Studies have shown that about one in three people in large employer-based health plans are dependents under the age of 25.
So now companies may get involved in the childhood obesity epidemic, too. Today, one of the nation’s largest insurers, Humana, says it will be the first to offer employers a weight loss program catered to children and adolescents as an employer perk.
The service, called Kurbo, is a subscription-based mobile health app and coaching service based on ideas licensed from Stanford University’s respected Pediatric Weight Control Program. It has three parts: a mobile app with a food tracker, games, and progress tracking; a virtual coach that gives advice and food suggestions; and finally, a weekly live human coaching session over the phone or video chat.
Kurbo founder and CEO Joanna Strober says she started the company in 2013 after a pediatrician informed her that her 11-year-old son was overweight. “He was good at telling me I have a problem, but didn’t have good ideas to help me fix it, which is really hard as a parent,” she recalls.
Children’s weight loss programs have to be framed differently than, say, Weight Watchers, she says. Encouraging calorie counting can be dangerous for children and lead to even unhealthier habits (such as substituting potato chips for a meal) or eating disorders. While there are in-person weight loss programs for kids, like the Stanford clinic, these can be time-consuming and expensive. She noticed there were no virtual weight loss programs or food tracking apps geared to children. Kurbo’s program focuses on portion control and training kids to recognize healthy foods (with categories such as “red,” “yellow,” and “green”).
Strober launched the app for consumers in July 2014. Since, it has had about 1,000 kids go through the program, which costs $75 a month or $180 for three months (it can be used for free by family members of a child who is a subscriber). In a pilot study, the average weight loss was 4.4 pounds in seven weeks. Of 500 children who went through the program from January to May, 86% maintained or reduced their body mass index (BMI)–on average by what is defined as a “clinically significant” amount, according to the company.
Strober hopes employers will make Kurbo affordable to everyone. Already, she’s completed two pilots with companies working with Humana. “We have discovered through the last year that employers really do care about this and that they are willing to pay,” she says. “Having an overweight child is a really stressful experience, and so when an employer offers something that can help parents, they are really appreciative.”