Healthy Workplace Resolutions HR Can Keep in 2015

By Jeff O’Mara Jan 19, 2015
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It’s that time of year again, when people are reflecting on the past year and setting goals for 2015. These goals are often about improving health, fitness, or productivity. People know what they need to do: eat healthier, exercise more, quit smoking, stop procrastinating and stop checking e-mail at dinner.

Unfortunately, many of these resolutions won’t survive January. Those that make it to February have a snowball’s chance in August of surviving the year.

Why is that?

Human resource pros know the answer better than anyone. Humans have a hard time making changes and making those changes last. It’s human nature, after all. People are just hard-wired against making changes and keeping them. But organizations are not. And that gives HR a huge advantage to create New Year’s resolutions that work. Here are three every HR manager should make a priority this year.

Make Employees Healthier, More Productive

Whoa! Is that even doable? It sounds like the Holy Grail of HR, but there are a wealth of fantastic opportunities you can take advantage of by targeting the right conditions and the exact people who have them.

In 2010 more than $100 billion was wasted on avoidable hospitalizations of people with chronic conditions (high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and more) who had not been taking their prescribed medication. Nationally, about 50 percent—that’s right, one half—of people with a prescribed medication for a chronic condition don’t take it as prescribed. The consequences are disastrous. They are more likely to be hospitalized, which means increased medical costs for employers and big productivity losses.

There is a wide array of reasons why people don’t take medication: they don’t think it makes a difference, or they suffer from side effects and don’t realize their doctor may have other alternatives, among others.

A client discovered through an assessment that employees weren’t taking their anti-seizure medication. The company looked into it and discovered the medication and the co-pay was expensive. This led people to try stretching a month’s medication to last six weeks or more. The result was more seizures and missed work due to avoidable illness. Once the company changed the co-pay, adherence shot up and employees became healthier and more productive. That’s a perfect example of high-impact HR changing lives.

It is not realistic to get 100 percent of the non-adherent people to comply. But you can boost adherence by knowing and targeting the right people with specific conditions and launching targeted disease management programs to reach them. By the way, this might not cost you a dime. Many companies have disease management included in their health plans.

If you know the risks and conditions to target, there are many opportunities beyond medication adherence to keep people healthy and more productive.

Optimize Your Organization’s Health Care Spending

As we all know, there is a great deal of money spent on health care in the U.S. that is simply wasted. Experts estimate that $765 billion—27 percent of total spend—is wasted, according to the Institute of Medicine. Employers shoulder a lot of that load, spending $620 billion (2014 estimate) to cover 150 million Americans, according to data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Costs are up 28 percent compared to five years ago. This is why 67 percent of chief financial officers (CFOs) say health care costs are a leading economic concern.

So what can you do to optimize your company’s health care spend?

Opportunities that could apply to your organization include:

  • Overuse (and overspend) on the emergency room (ER).
  • Underuse of generic medication.
  • Use of prescription medication when an over-the-counter alternative is available.
  • Disease management.
  • Target top conditions by cost and productivity.

Another client found they had emergency room over-utilization that cost them more than $1 million a year in wasted spend. It turned out more than a decade ago, they believed their employees weren’t seeing the doctor often enough. To encourage their people to be healthy, the company reduced the copay for the ER to zero. Guess what? It worked! People saw the doctor more often by going to the ER instead of a family physician or urgent care where they would have gotten better or similar care for less money. Because this data was hard to see, the company didn’t realize how much they were overpaying. They forgot about zeroing out the copay. It’s an example of great intentions going awry at a big cost.

Another company had many employees taking prescriptions for anti-ulcer medication. Each individual with a prescription cost $200/month. The overall cost to the company was about $500,000 annually. The kicker is that the drug is available over the counter for a fraction of the cost—about $25 per month. Just making this change would save hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Use Data-Driven Insights to Improve Workforce Health

The slogan goes something like, “you can manage what you measure.”

Benefits managers and CFOs certainly don’t want to waste money on health care. The problem is that the data companies get from their insurers and brokers is all haystacks, no needles. It’s not intended to be that way. It’s hard to take paid claims and other reports and turn them into actionable insights to improve your population’s health.

Given the lack of real insights companies have increasingly turned to workplace wellness programs as a way to control costs. Wellness has become a $6 billion industry. While it does some things well, cost control isn’t one of them. It’s partly because wellness programs aren’t set up to succeed. Commonly, companies offer general programs like weight loss or smoking cessation. These programs may not address the right risks and conditions and they certainly aren’t focused on the people who need it most. Specific, targeted programs are much more likely to achieve their goals.

Now you can target and tune your wellness to work and get data that your CFO will love. Plus, your people will be healthier and more productive. It’s a resolution worth making and keeping. It is something that HR leaders are uniquely empowered to do.

Jeff O’Mara is president and CEO of Healthentic, an analytics company that measures population health and identifies cost savings for employers.

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