Corporate wellness programs are designed to yield happier, healthier employees and reduced health care costs for employers. Some employers estimate they’ve realized a 25 percent reduction in sick leave, workers’ compensation and disability insurance via well-executed plans. A 2014 Harvard Business Review study found that a sample of 20 companies yielded an average health care cost increase of less than 2 percent for companies with wellness offers versus 7 percent national average inclines.

Playing the long game

Now, efforts are shifting to slicing costs associated with chronic health states such as diabetes, hypertension, smoking cessation, obesity and sedentary lifestyles. “The only real ways to impact the chronic diseases issues that cost the significant part of our medical dollars is to look at the lifestyles that contribute to that,” explains Douglas Smith, a family physician and co-founder of MinuteClinic.

The payoff comes in the form of better management of chronic diseases exacerbated by poor lifestyle choices. “The key is that employees avoid health care utilization because they are healthy, not because they can’t afford the out of pocket costs. It is a delicate shift that all employers are trying to manage,” says Tim Davenport, the CEO of Consumable Science, a science and technology platform that has created a universal health score for consumers.

Until recently, however, employers only had health insurance claims to get a reading on the wellness of their employees. Those claims were what was used to pinpoint high users and only offered projections on future spending.

“The key is that employees avoid health care utilization because they are healthy, not because they can’t afford the out of pocket costs."

“Using claims as an information tool predicting the future is like driving on a road with the only navigation being the rearview mirror,” explains  Davenport.

Wielding tech

Technology is providing the missing piece to the puzzle, explains Smith. Now, with the use of biometric screening and biomarkers, companies can more accurately gauge an employee’s total health and offsetting the pitfalls of self-reporting.

“Technology has been part and parcel of what’s made it possible over the last couple to focus efforts on wellness programs. The ability to get accurate and easy to use and lower cost analysis has helped revolutionize that part of it,” Smith says. Now people are able to understand consequences of poor choices.

 “There are more people now than five years ago who are seeing the connection between what they do, what they put into their mouth and what their body ends up doing,” explains Smith who says he sees examples of this daily in his practice.

Employees are also more in tune with the fact there is a cost now of health insurance. “There is more buy in from employees,” Smith continues, as consumers understand their behaviors affect their wallets. Consumers are realizing that health care costs will continue to become a higher portion of their spend as employers continue to shift to high deductible health plans and defined contribution benefits formulas.       

Top-down

Employers, in turn, are also linking a healthy workforce to higher productivity. “But employees need to see real improvements in their health to stay engaged, similarly, employers need to see real results in programs they invest in to stay engaged too. Optimally, the design of wellness programs enables the employer to link the improvements in health to improvements in productivity. Wellness programs need to be more rigorous in their measurement of these key outcomes,” suggests Dr. J. Hunter Young, an internist and epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Schools of Medicine and Public Health.

Experts say characteristics of good wellness programs must be measurable. With employers devoting 2 percent or more of their entire spend on prevention programs, they want to be able to measure it in outcomes, productivity and decreases in utilization. “A good program needs to be simple, easy, direct and have a bottom line to it,” says Smith. “It can’t be nebulous. We need to see x number of points drop [from efforts to reduce cholesterol]. Then you can take that and use it to go back to health insurance company and say ‘Look we are seeing a drop in this factor so what are you going to do for us?’”