Hospitals discover the value of healthy HCWs

Incentives for wellness gain favor, save money

Your employees have devoted their lives to caring for others, but unfortunately, they often aren't very good at taking care of their own health. They may be sedentary, or obese, or they have undiagnosed hypertension or high cholesterol. Those health risk factors equate to rising medical costs and a greater risk of injury.

How can you prod your employees to adopt a healthier lifestyle? A growing number of hospitals are using financial incentives — a tactic that is commonplace in other industries.

Almost half of all employers (46%) offer wellness incentives or are implementing such a program, according to a survey by Watson Wyatt, an Arlington, VA-based human resources consulting firm. By 2009, that will likely rise to 70% of all employers, based on employers who say they're planning to add the wellness incentives.

"Hospitals are late to the game and are just now coming on board [with wellness programs] in the last couple years — which is ironic," says Michael Wood, MS, MPH, a senior consultant in health and productivity with Watson Wyatt in Seattle. "They are realizing that their health care costs are skyrocketing out of control."

Health care workers are "among the unhealthiest in America," says Wood. "It doesn't seem to matter that they're health care workers. What we hear routinely is the nurses say they are so busy caring for other people that they neglect themselves."

A successful wellness program includes risk assessment, education, management support and incentives for continued participation, says Wood, who consults with hospitals around the country. Employers also need to monitor outcomes to see if they need to alter the program, he says. Companies with "highly effective health and productivity programs" cut the rise in general health insurance costs in half and have increases in sick leave that are five times lower and short-term disability that are more than four times lower, according to Watson Wyatt.

"The holy grail is to reduce the number of risk factors that your people have," Wood says. That means helping employees increase their exercise and activity levels, detect their high cholesterol, manage their high blood pressure and diabetes, quit smoking, and cut their portion sizes. "All those things can have a huge impact on health status and risk factors," he says.

Return on investment: two to five years

Wellness can be expensive. It can cost up to $2 million to establish a comprehensive wellness program, depending on the number of employees, the programs offered, and the incentives provided, says Woods. "To CEOs who don't want to spend $2 million on a wellness program, we say, 'Can you afford to spend $2 million more a year in increased [medical costs]?'" Wood says.

The return on investment will take about two to five years, he says. Hospitals may see a slowing of the growth of their medical costs — but that represents a significant savings in an environment of rising costs and an aging work force, he says.

Hospitals may use a vendor who provides online risk assessment, telephone-based or in-person coaching, and chronic disease management. But they also may tap into resources that available for free or at low cost. For example, insurance carriers may provide some wellness resources, and major nonprofits such as the American Heart Association and American Cancer Society have prevention-based programs.

The Wellness Councils of America, based in Omaha, NE, is a membership-based organization that provides free resources as well as consulting and training programs (

Wellness programs must be tailored to the needs of a particular work force, so it's important to survey employees about their interests as well as to look at trends of medical claims data.

Management support is also critical. Hospital administrators need to view wellness not just as a frill, but as part of their business plan. "If they don't get their arms around [wellness], it's going to hurt their competitiveness in the marketplace for recruiting" and their health care costs will continue to rise unabated, says Wood.