Medical center program nets healthy returns

Demand management, incentives incorporated

A combination of traditional wellness activities, demand management, and incentives have yielded estimated savings of more than $1.2 million in employee health care costs at Anderson (SC) Area Medical Center, says Pat Collins, director of health promotion at the 2,600-employee facility.

All employees are offered a variety of activities, programs, and screenings. The employee health service is part of the health promotion department, providing the opportunity for workers to complete health risk appraisals and receive information on healthy lifestyle factors when they report for annual screenings.

Along with immunizations and tuberculosis skin testing, employees are weighed and their cholesterol, blood pressure, and glucose levels checked. Workers are offered health risk appraisals. An annual health fair features additional opportunities to be screened and to learn about physical and emotional wellness.

Throughout the year, employees can participate in prenatal education classes, weight management programs, stop-smoking courses, low-cost massage therapy, in-house aerobics, discounted community fitness club memberships, body fat analysis, stress management seminars, a walking club, cardiovascular fitness and cancer screenings, cholesterol and diabetes education programs, self-defense classes, dancing classes, and outdoor activities such as hiking and white-water rafting. Most activities are available free or for a minimal charge.

The wellness program was launched in 1992 and in 1995 won a Gold designation from the Omaha, NE-based Wellness Councils of America (WELCOA) — the organization’s highest award — for an effective workplace wellness program.

Currently, 400 employees are earning "activity points" that can be redeemed for prizes such as water bottles, coolers, T-shirts, and sweatshirts, golf caps, and sports bags. Points are awarded for specific health goals, including being within an ideal weight range, cholesterol level below 200, nonsmoking, up-to-date cancer checkups, participation in wellness events or outside fitness events, and various forms of exercise.

"We have a new program beginning called the Healthy Horizons Wellness Challenge, which challenges employees to meet eight of 10 set criteria. If they meet eight criteria, they get a $200 cash bonus. If they meet four, they will get a $100 cash bonus," Collins says.

Collins has measured decreases in employee blood pressure, weight, cholesterol, and smoking from 1992, when the wellness program began, to 1996. Using national estimates of the amount such health risk factors cost employers, she multiplied those figures by the number of employees who reduced or eliminated those health risks to arrive at an estimate of total health care cost savings to the hospital. That figure amounts to more than $1.2 million. (See chart, p. 106.) In 1992, for example, 23% of employees had elevated blood pressure, but that percentage decreased to 15% in 1996.

Those savings are due to the comprehensiveness of the wellness program and not to any one factor, Collins notes.

‘You don’t have to be a jock’

"We’ve tried to do a whole variety of things because we have such a diverse population of employees in the hospital, so we needed to reach them all in different ways. We also built health awareness, making them aware, for example, that their [high] blood pressure is going to kill them if they don’t do something about it," she says. "You have to use a multifaceted approach and relate the message that wellness is achievable in many ways. You don’t have to be a jock jogging down the highway or eat nothing but carrots. That turns people off. You have to show people that even minor changes make a difference. Every little bit helps."

Administrative support is crucial, Collins adds. With a health promotion budget of approximately $100,000, she considers herself fortunate but says other employee health professionals can provide smaller programs on a shoestring and still make a difference in employee wellness.

"Anything is worthwhile," she says. "Start small. If I were just going to target one activity, I would just get people moving. Get them into aerobics, dance classes, even walking up the stairs. Get them into self-care; that’s where you can show you’re saving money right away."

Healthy, happy employees are a valuable resource, she points out.

"Wellness may not generate monetary revenue, but it generates human resources revenue," Collins adds. "You’re reducing absenteeism and improving employees’ sense of well-being; therefore, they are going to take care of their patients better, which is going to make patients want to come here rather than somewhere else. What better place to invest than in your own people?"