Biometric screening is just a first step
Put numbers in context, experts say
Biometric screening is a common entry point for wellness programs. If the screening detects high blood pressure, blood sugar or cholesterol, employees can take steps to avoid serious medical issues.
But biometric screening alone is not a strategy. It is a tool that should be part of a supportive health promotion program, says Rebecca Kelly, PhD, RD, CDE, director of health promotion and wellness at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
"Just for an individual to know their numbers is nice, but that one-time episode or single visit to a health care provider may not yield the change in behavior," says Kelly, who was co-author of recent joint guidance by three leading health care organizations on the use of biometric screening.
"A biometric screening can provide awareness and education, but without a comprehensive approach, it will not truly support a change in behavior. You have to look at the community, the culture, the leadership, the incentives and the environment," she says.
In the joint statement, the Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO), American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, and Care Continuum Alliance provide a framework for employers to implement biometric screening.
The bottom line: Your screening should be shaped by the goals of the program. You will need to think through how you will deliver the results of the screenings and how you will communicate and engage employees in managing their health.
Building trust is key. "This is personal health information that has to be protected at every level," Kelly says.
Employers also need to have realistic expectations. "As important as what screenings are, is what screenings are not," the joint guidance says. "Biometric screenings are not a replacement for regular medical examinations or wellness visits with a health care provider. They are also not a mechanism for diagnosing disease."
Engage employees in health
Many companies create a health promotion program in order to lower medical costs. But they are most likely to see those savings if the program is attuned to the employees' needs and interests.
Companies with a supportive culture and clear leadership support had greater improvements in health metrics, according to a survey of more than 600 employers by HERO, which is based in Edina, MN, and Mercer, a global consulting firm based in New York City.
The University of Alabama partnered with its School of Nursing to provide health coaches for employees. Having someone who could explain the biometrics made the information relevant and motivating, Kelly says.
Based on feedback from focus groups, the university also added incentives. For the first year, the incentive was modest — a $25 gift card for participating in the health screening. Then the incentives rose to a three-tiered system based on health risk: $50 for silver, $100 for gold and $200 for crimson (the healthiest employees with the lowest risk). Employees gained more money by boosting their health status.
"We've had over 35% [of employees] improve their health in a one-year time frame," Kelly says.
The core elements of biometric screening are typically blood pressure, cholesterol, body mass index, and tobacco status. Some employers also include blood glucose to detect pre-diabetes. With health coaching and lifestyle changes, employees may be able to modify that risk, Kelly says.
The University of Alabama also asks employees how often they exercise. "We've found that individuals who do no form of exercise cost upwards of three times as much as people who are exercising one or more days," says Kelly. "We've got to get people moving. Physical activity alone helps make changes in your cholesterol, blood sugar and body mass index."
It is important to make the biometric screening easily accessible to all employees, Kelly notes. The University of Alabama offers screenings at different times and places to accommodate employees with late shifts. Employees also can bring a form to their physician or to a freestanding laboratory.
The goal is to engage employees to take steps to improve their health, says Kelly. Wellness programs often include team efforts and competitions. "You have to have the joy that comes with improving health," she says.
[Editor's note: A copy of the joint statement on biometric screening is available at http://bit.ly/1dn6M6i]