Three types of health data you should not ignore

Look for common themes in data stream

Worker's compensation claims, Employee Assistance Program utilization, employee opinion surveys and productivity questionnaires. Which are the most reliable data to base important decisions about wellness programs?

"In my experience, the best strategy is to review all possible data sources available and identify common themes," says Bobbie Orsi, MS, RN, CDE, director of occupational health and wellness at Berkshire Health Systems in Pittsfield, MA. "These are most likely indicative of the primary health risks and behaviors."

If your decisions aren't data-driven, you'll get disappointing results in terms of reducing health risks. "And now that wellness has become a serious health cost management strategy, failure to move in that direction will jeopardize the impact of a wellness initiative. It will risk its elimination when resources shrink," says Orsi. "I often hear that an employer has a commitment from the top to develop a wellness strategy, but in fact the program has a very small budget."

Wellness programs may begin small and grow slowly over time, by utilizing positive outcome data. "Interest surveys help to determine what employees want, which is often not what they 'need,'" says Orsi. "Health risk assessments [HRAs] tell us what employees need, which is not always what employees want. So the best strategy is to offer both." Don't fail to utilize these three data sources:

Health insurance claims data.

"While this data represents events and illnesses that have already occurred, it gives some information about the major health issues that are driving cost," says Orsi. "Health claims can also provide some insight into the health care decision-making practices of a population." For example, it can tell you how often employees use the emergency department for non-urgent care, or how many are utilizing smoking cessation programs.

HRA data.

This gives you a "group snapshot" of common health risks such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and behaviors that drive risks such as physical inactivity, unhealthy eating habits and smoking. "For the most part, HRA data is self-reported. So an individual needs to know their cholesterol and blood pressure numbers to receive an accurate health profile," notes Orsi.

Orsi says that HRA data is most useful in driving program design when participation rates are greater than 60%, so consider incentives to increase participation.

Data obtained from employee health screenings.

This gives you an golden opportunity—a chance to obtain verifiable health metrics during a face-to-face encounter with the employee. "Employees are more likely to make positive change and take that 'next step' when armed with good personal health information and a motivating nurse coach, in a safe and comfortable environment," says Orsi.