Staring At Web Could Help Wellness

February 12, 2007
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As people struggle to stay fit, lose weight and stay healthy, some employers are encouraging their employees to track their goals and health status online — and rewarding them when they do.

Pam Ries, system director of benefits and health and disability management for Spectrum Health, said the organization has a Web site for its employees where they can track their risk factors, goals and health status — including the date of their next physical, eye exam or other medical appointments — for incentives, such as $300 in cash.

Employees fill out a 15-minute online questionnaire to enroll in the Health by Choice program, which is administered through Priority Health Wellness Co. After completing the questionnaire, employees can build a personal Web site and use it to track their progress throughout the year.

There are three core components to the program, Ries said: preventive health, physical health improvement, and mental and holistic.

To complete the preventive health component, employees need to have a physical exam at least every 24 months, a dental exam every 12 months and a tuberculosis screening.

With the physical health improvement component, employees can choose from several options such as eight weeks of exercise, smoking cessation programs, weight management programs, and working with a nutritionist or personal trainer.

“They have a whole host of things they can choose from there, but they must complete three, and one must be exercise,” Ries said.

For the mental and holistic health component, employees may enroll in continuing education programs at Spectrum or elsewhere, volunteer or give their time, engage in massage therapy or reflexology, or show that they are attending church, gaining spiritual growth or attending a support group. Employees can track this schedule or progress on their Web site.

The Health by Choice program has been in place since 2002, but Ries said it changed dramatically in 2006 with the addition of incentives. Those who enroll in the program pay $600 less in health insurance premiums per year than those who do not participate. There are additional incentives such as having a biometric screening, for which employees receive $300 in cash. “It’s a very rich program,” Ries said. “We have over 70 percent of our staff enrolled.”

More than 6,000 people have participated in the biometric screening, surpassing the estimate of 2,500 that Ries said they were expecting.

“Now the goal is to get people to complete program requirements,” she said.

Roy Zuidema, manager of Wellness Operations at Priority Health, said though insurance companies have been telling people to exercise regularly and quit smoking for 25 years, employers are finally starting to get involved.

“It’s become a very serious situation,” he said.

Zuidema said incentive programs such as the one at Spectrum Health have helped.

“People don’t change on their own,” he said.

After filling out a health risk appraisal, people set their own goals and track them on the Web site, Zuidema said, which in addition to tracking health care appointments, can also keep track of chronic illnesses or conditions with the disease management program.

Though the goals are self-tracked by the employees, Zuidema said he has not seen a problem with people claiming information that is untrue.

Zuidema said most companies participate in the program in order to see outcomes such as improved productivity and lower health care costs.

“Priority is on the cutting edge,” he said. “If programs are designed right, they will work.”

Part of designing the program correctly is making sure the incentive to participate is worth it. While $50 may not be much incentive, a percentage of cost taken off a health care premium may get results.

“The incentive piece really is the driver,” he said.

Zuidema said it’s too soon to see solid statistics from the program, but anecdotally there has been positive feedback. “We will continue to do Health by Choice,” he said. “But we’re going to add more bells and whistles.”

Zuidema said companies can expect to see a 3-to-1 return on investment in about five years.

“It doesn’t happen overnight,” he said.

Companies can expect an increase in cost the first year and a decrease over the next several years. As Health by Choice is only three years old, Zuidema said the returns have not yet been met, but the initial savings and risk reduction show promise.

For people whose company or insurance carrier does not offer a Web site or services to track health goals, there is SparkPeople.com. The Web site is a free online resource center that helps people track and achieve their fitness goals. The site was founded by Chris Downie, co-founder of UpForSale.com, an online person-to-person auction site that was acquired by eBay in 1998.

“He always wanted to do things to help people through their goals,” said Grant Miller, marketing manager at SparkPeople.com, which is based in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The site started as a way for people to track any goals, Miller said, but took a fitness turn when the demand was seen.

“What we realized as things started to progress (was that) 90 percent of the goals that were being set were weight-loss and health- and fitness-related,” he said. “We began to add more and more features that were very useful for people who were looking to lose weight.”

Miller said they began to realize that the Web site fit into the online weight loss arena more and more.

“Though we didn’t really see ourselves as an online diet company, that’s who we were competing with,” he said.

Miller said in 2005 the Web site was opened to users for free and is approaching the goal of having a million users at the end of 2006.

“Throughout the past year, we’ve added a large variety of tools,” he said.

Some of the tools available on the site include exercise demonstrations, a fitness planner, and opportunities to join chat groups to discuss goals. As fad diets fall out of favor, Miller said, the site is gaining popularity. The site has a nutritionist, dietician and personal trainers on staff, as well as freelancers who create expert content articles. They also have dieticians, nurses and doctors who are members of the site and occasionally give tips.

Other site resources include articles, recipes, a resource center, meal planning, exercise tracker and other tools to help monitor health and fitness goals.

“It’s a very tried and true healthy lifestyle,” he said of the SparkPeople.com philosophy of eating healthier foods and exercising more. “We provide all the tools that help people realize that.”

The Web site also has social networking features that Miller said helps people meet others with similar goals, life situations and interests and with whom they can discuss their fitness aspirations and challenges.

“It helps them be more accountable to their weight loss as well as more encouraged,” he said. “They’re not just entering food into a database; they’re actually interacting with someone on the other end of the computer.”

Miller said for companies who are interested in helping their employees but do not have access to such a system, they provide corporate wellness programs for free and can help companies add rewards programs.

Members of the Web site who are not affiliated with a company also can earn rewards, such as occasional giveaways and SparkPoints, which provide a trophy icon on one’s personal site.

“You can win prizes occasionally,” he said. “But mainly, it’s so people can see results away from the scale.”      HQX

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