Small hospital, big focus on wellness

Creating a comprehensive wellness program may sound like a luxury to a small, rural hospital. A fancy gym? Biometric screenings? Financial incentives? Those require resources.

Saint Elizabeth's Medical Center, a 25-bed critical access hospital in Wabasha, MN, has done all that – and more. Creating a culture of health is possible even for small organizations, says Jim Root, vice president of human resources. And it's just as important to the hospital and the community alike, he says.

At the local Rotary Club, business leaders were asking the hospital's CEO: How can you help us control our health care costs? The hospital has a proven program to provide. "We've now taken our employee wellness program and promoted that to their businesses," says Root.

Saint Elizabeth's began as many hospitals do, with an annual health fair. Employees could participate in a biometric screening that included a lipid panel, glucose test, blood pressure, and measurement of height and weight. They received a brief consult about their results, some health education, and a token gift.

"Our thought was if we can provide the education, they'll make the right choices," says Root.

To give wellness a boost, the hospital promoted activity with a "10,000 steps" program that encourages walking as exercise. Employees tracked their progress with pedometers and received small gifts, such as T-shirts or water bottles. But the people most likely to participate were those who were already active and healthy.

"We've learned over time that it's critical to tier your programs," says Root. "You need to have moderate and lower [goal] levels so every audience will see something that's achievable."

Today, about 65% of the hospital's 280 fulltime or regular part-time employees participate in the wellness program. Employees who complete four key components — a biometric screen, a flu shot, getting an annual physical and a yearly dental checkup — receive $50. They then can receive up to $200 in additional incentives based on nutritional and exercise goals.

For example, nutritional challenges change every two months. Employees may track their calcium intake or servings of whole grains. "On average, we've seen an improvement in our scores of 11% in our lipid panel reading," Root says.

Saint Elizabeth's is also adding a negative incentive for tobacco users. They will pay a $50 monthly surcharge on their insurance premium unless they join a tobacco cessation program.

The hospital's fitness center is part of the cardiac rehab unit. Patients have priority, but it is also available to employees and can be used after-hours. "It's an amazing fitness center for a rural community," says Root. "Our community is extremely supportive of what we do. They've helped us fundraise for expanding our wellness center and equipping our wellness center."

The hospital also organizes worksite wellness challenges in the community, to build competition and enthusiasm around physical activity and weight loss.

Saint Elizabeth's accomplishes this without having a wellness coordinator or other staff dedicated to a wellness program. Instead, employees share the duties. The wellness team includes a dietician, human resources, community relations, and employee health.

"We take advantage of the great resources we have in our facility," says Root. In a small facility, employees are accustomed to being flexible and taking on various responsibilities. "The variety helps keep people engaged and enthused," he says.