HCWs aren't healthy — and that is costly

More chronic conditions and hospitalizations

America's health care workers may provide the best of care to their patients, but they aren't very good at caring for their own health. They have a greater burden of chronic diseases than other workers — which also means higher medical costs for their employers.

In fact, medical care and prescription drug costs for hospital workers are 10% higher than the general workforce, according to an analysis by Thomson Reuters Healthcare consulting business in Ann Arbor, MI. The analysis compared health risk and health care medical claims of 1.1 million hospital workers with 17.8 million health plan members from other industries in 2010.

Hospital workers were 31% more likely to be hospitalized because of being overweight or obese and 32% more likely to be hospitalized with congestive heart failure than other workers. They also were significantly more likely to be hospitalized for asthma, hypertension, HIV, diabetes and mental health.

The findings were surprising because many of these health care workers are advising or caring for people with those same conditions, says Kreg Sherbine, consulting manager for the Healthcare business, which helps employers analyze their medical data and evaluate their wellness programs.

"Chronic conditions are often manageable," he says. "One would think that people who know about health care and appropriate health behaviors would be less susceptible to chronic conditions."

However, it isn't always easy to be healthy if you work in health care. Shift work can affect sleep patterns and even diet, says Sherbine. And health care workers have high levels of work-related stress, he says.

"There's pressure to perform at the highest level every single minute of every day," he says. "The evidence in the literature is that stress and mental health issues can exacerbate physical health issues."

Time for an onsite clinic?

Hospitals are beginning to embrace wellness as a way to enhance their employees' health and help control medical costs, says Andrew Halpert, MD, senior consultant with Towers Watson in San Francisco, which helps employers develop and evaluate wellness programs and analyze their costs and benefits.

The study's findings on chronic conditions among hospital workers mirrors what Halpert has found in analyzing claims data for hospitals, he says. In response, hospitals have begun to change the work climate with healthier food in the cafeteria and smoke-free policies, he notes.

A broad-based wellness program, including health coaching, financial incentives, and worksite wellness challenges to motivate employees, can produce a return on investment in three to five years, he says. "You have to have a good program, promote it heavily and change the culture," he says.

Sherbine advises employers to take a close look at their medical claims. Wellness offerings should be tailored to their population, not just follow a generic model, he says. "Before an organization launches into solutions, they need to really understand the problem," he says. "That ought to drive the development of programs to help the population manage its health."

It might also pay off for hospitals to offer some disease management or basic primary care in an employee health clinic, says Sherbine. The analysis found that hospital employees were 22% more likely to visit the emergency department but had fewer visits to a physicians' office.

For hospital workers, visiting the ER is often more convenient than taking time off to see a doctor. An onsite clinic would make it easier for them to manage their chronic conditions, says Sherbine. "We are working with a number of clients who are considering onsite clinics," he says.

Ideally, hospital workers should model healthy habits, says Halpert. "Your goal should be to do better than the general population," he says.