When gauging whether employers need health management programs in their wellness offerings, new research from Optum says the focus should be less on medical cost savings and more on the benefits for increased productivity and risk reduction.

Optum’s annual health management in the workplace study recently flagged some developing trends that can help employers get the most out of their wellness programs.

“In our industry each year, there are several studies that are connected and published to estimate the impact of health management programs,” says Stephen Hartley, director of analytics of Health & Wellness at Optum. “Most of the time those studies tend to focus on medical cost savings and that component of savings. We think looking at just medical expenditures ... probably underestimates the impact of these programs.”

According to Optum, when individuals participated in a health management program and successfully improved their health or lifestyle, the average productivity savings was $353 per year. Participants were also absent 0.2 fewer days than nonparticipants.

Optum associate director of healthcare economics Rebecca Mitchell says that employers can use these findings to “model their own outcomes.”

“When we look at a typical person who may work about 240 days per year, that is 10.3 hours gained [and] amounts to a 0.5% gain in production time” she says.

Optum tracked interaction among participants who worked with nurses, wellness coaches and Optum’s health management programs. The study included more 3,793 participants in the 18-70 years-old age bracket who were employed by Optum clients.

For employees not participating in programs, the study found 27 days lost in productivity per year due to poor health or more than 12% in lost employee capacity annually.

In a second study, Hartley explains that individual health program participation can reduce risk. Through an analysis of Optum's telephonic wellness coaching, online health coaching and biometric screening programs, findings highlight that high-risk employees who completed one program “achieved significant reduction in risk.”

High-risk employees include those with high blood pressure, high body weight, high cholesterol, poor nutrition, low physical activity, stress and tobacco use.  

“High-risk individuals who complete the single Optum health management program achieved significant risk reductions for some risk, and individuals that complete more than one actually see incrementally greater odds of reducing the health risk,” Hartley explains.

When looking at connections to net health risk reduction, employers do not always have to be worried about employees who may be unhealthy. There should be another consideration.

“It’s important to look at both sides of that health risk. If you just focus on those that are at risk, and reducing their risk, you’re missing out on the potential savings that can come from keeping people who are not at risk healthy,” Hartley says.

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