Corporate wellness programs abound today, but that doesn’t mean that they’re all successful. In particular, the latest research finds that most wellness programs fail to reward preventive behaviors that could help members identify or prevent chronic disease.

Despite mounting evidence that incentives such as cash payments or reduced health insurance premiums can significantly boost participation, the majority of wellness programs fail to provide meaningful inducements. Just-released data from wellness platform provider HealthMine reveals that 80% of wellness programs don’t offer incentives for cancer screenings and 66% don’t offer smokers any bonus for quitting. Only 41% of employers offer their employees enticements to use biometric screening, and a scant 17% of employers reward behaviors related to managing existing conditions, such as taking prescribed medication.

A 2014 research report from Rand Corporation estimates that a wide majority – about 80% – of U.S. employers with more than 1,000 employees offer wellness programs that include health screenings, disease management and healthy lifestyle encouragement. Rand also finds, however, that employers that don’t use incentives report lower participation rates. “In the absence of incentives, employers reported a median participation rate of only 20%,” the report states. The uptake doubled to 40% when the employer offered either monetary or non-monetary incentives.

There are several reasons why employer efforts to reward employee wellness program participation might fail, according to Bryce Williams, HealthMine’s President CEO. First, even when they do offer incentives, “They’re not based upon actuarial data, where they make the most impact,” he explains. Second, “Many of the current programs are heavy on lifestyle recommendations and not clinically oriented. We’re trying to bring into the wellness equation what we believe employees and employers should be doing to close gaps in care.”

A third reason, he adds, centers around communication. “Many times employers do have incentives,” he says, “but they’re poorly communicated or there’s confusion about how members can access them.”

To correct that, Williams argues, wellness plans need to be brought into the digital era. “They need to be easy to find, easy to understand and easy to use. So many incentive programs are either confounding or hard to use or they have some sort of delay on them, so people don’t know they’re available until it’s too late,” he says. “Using a digital communication platform is important to deliver dynamic incentives.”

HealthMine research finds that more than one-third of employees (34%) consider cash the biggest inducement when it comes to wellness. Another 26% are motivated by health insurance premium discounts, while 18% find gift cards a sufficient enticement.

But not all employees need to be rewarded for improving their health. Nearly half of the employees responding to the HealthMine survey (46%) said they’d complete biometric screening, even if they did not earn an incentive. Forty-three percent said they’d take a cancer screening test or participate in a weight loss program, even if there was no compensation involved.

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