Hospitals See Growth in Wellness Programs

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:36 pm

Many hospital systems in southeastern Wisconsin are now offering wellness programs for area employers. The programs are designed to use the hospitals’ services and facilities to save employers money by keeping their workers healthier. Of course, health care costs in the Milwaukee area are higher than most other similar-sized metro areas in the United States. Some local employers are using wellness programs to improve the health of their employees, which reduces their health insurance claims and therefore can reduce the company’s health insurance costs.

"Wellness has been around for a long time, but no one took notice of it until costs started to go up," said Kris Krueger, regional director of employer relations with Covenant Healthcare in Milwaukee. "It’s obvious to everyone that this country has serious health care issues like obesity and diabetes. Employers and businesses are starting to step up and help people be more aware of healthy lifestyles. It effects absenteeism and productivity."

The wellness programs offered by Milwaukee-area hospitals and health care providers generally start by having employees fill out a survey, which is used to create a health assessment for each employee. The surveys ask about their current behaviors and family medical histories. The survey results are generally paired with biometrics, including blood pressure, blood sugar levels, cholesterol and body mass index.

Employees are typically given a report on the results of their surveys and biometrics, and employers are then given an aggregate report, showing the types of risks they have within their workforce and where they can make improvements.

Identifying risks and helping companies form plans to prevent significant health problems are examples of how hospitals can help employers gain a return on their wellness investment, said Tracey Brand, wellness coordinator with Froedtert Hospital and the Medical College of Wisconsin.

"With the high (risk) group you’re already spending money because they’re already high risk," she said. "Where I tend to move companies is toward the mid-level or borderline groups (of employees). That’s where I can make a huge impact and a huge return on investment. The return on investment comes when you find where any population has a higher risk and where they spend the most money, and design a health care program based on those things."

It often takes a while for a company to receive a return on investment with wellness programs, most health care providers say. Some programs, like smoking cessation classes and incentives, can pay for themselves in as little as 12 months. However, other programs, such as aggressive diabetes management and weight loss, take more time.

Dr. Michael Lischak, director of Corporate Works, Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital’s wellness program, said he conservatively estimates that companies receive between 250 to 300 percent return on investment for wellness programs.

James Lyons, senior vice president of administration with ProHealth Care, agreed.

"It’s one of the few ways to take control (of health care costs)," he said. "There’s almost an infinite amount of possibilities to align a wellness plan with a benefits plan."

Aurora Health Care has been offering its wellness program for about 12 years, said Peter Garner, regional administrator of commercial marketing.

"What has changed is that the marketplace is now ready to hear about it. We’ve been preaching to an empty church for some time. Employers are now realizing that it is not unit price that will win the day," Garner said.

The Froedtert and Medical College of Wisconsin Corporate Wellness Package was repositioned in the market last year. The program is now working to add features like fitness, nutrition and health screening, Lischak said.

The package offers wellness services to business customers, ranging from educational presentations and health screenings of employees to health risk assessments and even designing customized wellness programs for corporations.

Hospitals and health care provider groups should naturally be in the wellness business because of the range of tools at their fingertips, Brand said.

"Hospitals have physicians, nutritionists, physical therapists – a whole range of services at our fingertips. There are so many services we have to offer. We can look at risks and behaviors. We can look at the menu in your cafeteria. We already have everything," Brand said.

Other Milwaukee-area hospitals and provider groups, including Columbia St. Mary’s and ProHealth Care, have started their wellness programs more recently.

ProHealth Care’s program, called Workforce Health Initiative, was unveiled in the last few months, Lyons said. As a low-cost provider in the Milwaukee area, the group wanted to make the package attractive to the business community, he said.

"Health care costs are a big concern (for businesses)," Lyons said. "We think we can help them manage them and get a better handle on costs from a data standpoint."

Covenant Healthcare started offering its wellness program about two years ago, about six months after a similar program was offered to employees.

"We believe that health care includes prevention to the end (of life), and as health care providers we have a responsibility to share what we know about prevention with the constituents out there," she said.

Many companies have been hesitant to participate in wellness programs because of start-up costs, but there are some easy-to-install early-stage programs that have low or no cost, Garner said, and they can result in long-term savings.

"These things can be free, like getting employees walking at lunch time," Garner said. "Don’t do nothing because you can’t do it all. Once you get the ball rolling, employees will start picking things up and might start looking at other areas of their lives."

Other early-stage wellness program ideas can include visits by nutritionists and physicians to the work site.

Most hospitals are expecting increased interest and enrollment in their wellness programs in the next few years, largely because of continued increases in health care costs.

"As more and more data comes out for those in place for a few years now and that’s shared, we will see more employers become involved," Krueger said.

"There’s been steady growth in the last three years – where it’s a trend now," Garner said. "The business research is showing there’s a return on investment. And medical research shows that when you better manage something like diabetes, it improves other areas of your life."

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