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Crain's Cleveland Business - Healthcare Panel - Post-event Coverage

February 23, 2006

February 23, 2006

By Maya R. Payne

Skyrocketing health insurance premiums, workers' compensation expense and absenteeism are hitting area companies where it hurts.

Three experts, speaking today as part of a panel discussion sponsored by Crain's Cleveland Business, said that long-term, comprehensive employee wellness programs are the surest way to improve workforce health and lower health benefit costs.

Panelist Jeannette Potts, a Cleveland Clinic urologist, advocated a holistic approach to employee wellness that takes into account the psychological, cultural and physical roots of illness.

"I believe the health of the body begins with the mind," she said.

That's an unusual perspective for someone working in a surgical field, she said. But it is a view that was shared by many of the health care and human resources professionals in the audience of about 120 people.

The question isn't what "fancy" incentive program is needed, but what really keeps people from making healthy lifestyle choices, Dr. Potts said.

Employers' approach to workplace wellness "can't be dictatorial and uncaring," she said.

"Listening is a dying art in our sound bite culture," she said, but employers need to find ways to communicate authenticity and empathy to their workers.

There's a growing fount of data available to employers that want to calculate the return on investment of workplace wellness programs, said panelist Tom Gillian, an author who holds a doctorate in exercise physiology.

He said that with insurance claims and prescription drug expense data, companies now can track health care costs on an aggregate basis and compare them against wellness program investment. Some companies have seen return on investment of between $2 and $8 for each dollar invested, while others see no return because of poor program design or execution, Dr. Gillian said.

His web site even features an "obesity cost calculator" that allows employers to determine the financial toll of obesity through lost production, greater absenteeism, higher worker's comp costs and higher insurance premiums.

Some popular wellness motivators are cash and days off for healthy workers, and higher health insurance deductibles for less fit employees.

Commitment from senior management, work force input into program design and inclusivity are the foundation of successful programs, Dr. Gillian said. Including family members also is important because health care for dependents often is more expensive than for the workers.

Patricia Horvath, executive director of HealthSpace Cleveland, a community health education provider, said that five characteristics define the area's best employee health programs, they:

  • are supported by senior management,
  • are voluntary and managed by employees,
  • are incentive-based,
  • have clear goals at the outset, and
  • are aligned with the company's culture.

She should know; she spearheaded HealthSpace Cleveland's "Healthy 50" project, which identified and honored the healthiest 50 companies in northern Ohio.

What is business but a dance between two companies?
What is life but a dance between people?
— Jeannette Potts, M.D. - Dr. Tango
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